Rescue squads and fire companies waited on high alert in 2018. That summer, boaters made five emergency calls in four days on the Delaware River. In 2019, 15 people were rescued from the river by June, before the start of peak tubing and swimming season.
The Delaware can be a dangerous place with flooding and unpredictable water conditions, but one group hopes to make it safer for everyone.
The Tri-County Marine Rescue Association (TCMRA) is a nonprofit primarily working in three counties adjacent to the Delaware River. Established in 2016, the association stemmed from a desire to make river rescues more efficient. TCMRA members formed a 501(c) in September 2017 to fund further projects and elect officers, including Jason Strauss as president.
“This is a hard-working group,” said Strauss. “We have a lot of ideas, for the most part, everyone gets along, we’re all forward-thinking. We put ourselves on the line.” TCMRA members are all volunteers, but rescue squads earn professional qualifications such as swiftwater operation and low-angle rope rescue.
At a group meeting, members discussed a frequent issue for marine crews: The confusion of river victims about location. “When people are out in the river, they don’t know where they are,” said Strauss. “They call 911, and we start chasing.”
It’s difficult for boaters and tubers to accurately place themselves on the river during emergencies. This is a common issue with tourists or other travelers who may not have experience with the river’s rapid changes in water level and current.
When calling 911, they’re unable to provide more than their immediate surroundings to a dispatcher – a tree in the water here, a spot of rapids there. Dispatchers send these details to local rescue squads, fire companies, and police officers, but can only provide an incomplete boater location.
Before 2016, this communication problem strained companies’ resources and caused some marine operations to become inefficient. Steve Burroughs, a rescue boat operator for New Hope Eagle Fire Company, explained further:
“If you called from below Lambertville, the phone call either goes to Bucks County, it goes to Mercer County, or sometimes they’ll make it to the Hunterdon tower. So the dispatchers were not knowing exactly where the people were. So they’re dispatching everybody, and we’re running all over the place.”
The TCMRA aims to end this issue using a new system of signs scheduled for placement this spring. The signs include both English and Spanish and come in a wide range of colors. They will be placed along the river to separate it into sections that boaters and 911 dispatchers can use to identify emergency locations. The Delaware River Joint Toll Bridge Commission machined the first batch of signs, which are slightly larger than common speed limit signs. Larger signs will be set only at common river access areas, such as boat launches and along bridges.
Bridges form natural dividing points between each of the rescue sections, which are broken down as follows: Riegelsville to Milford - Yellow, Milford to Frenchtown - Green, Frenchtown to Point Pleasant Remains - Blue, Point Pleasant Remains to Bulls Island Walking - Red, Bulls Island Walking to Stockton - White, Stockton to Lambertville Free - Orange, Lambertville Free to Washington’s Crossing - Purple, Washington’s Crossing to Scudder Falls - Brown.
The signage will work this way: A group of tubers enters the river at one of the county boat launches. Before entering the water, they’ll see a large sign indicating their current Water Rescue Zone. That sign will have a specific color that corresponds to smaller signs the tubers will pass on their way. When they reach the next rescue zone, they’ll be greeted by a new sign of a different color. In the advent of an emergency, tubers will be able to recite the color they passed most recently to 911 dispatchers.
Another situation: One of our tubers flips near rapids, but his friends saw an orange sign two minutes ago. Consulting TCMRA’s new plan for river rescue, 911 dispatchers will send the rescue squads and fire companies that correspond with the Orange Water Rescue Zone. New Hope Eagle Fire Company and Lambertville Fire Department are (hypothetically) assigned to the Orange Zone and are sent to rescue the tuber using their airboats.
Under previous procedures, all local boats and groups would be directed to the tuber, meaning wasted resources due to inaccurate location information. Instead, emergency personnel will utilize the signs to respond with the exact number of boats, divers, or other assets needed.
“A lot of people don’t know what goes on,” said Burroughs. “They hear the sirens going off and think, ‘What’s going on?’ If they know there’s a group out there or if we go to Bucks County and say ‘Hey we got this group,’ and just let the county know that the river is protected and we’re trying to do best for everyone.”
If you decide to float down the Delaware River this summer, look for TCMRA’s signs dotting the banks. It might make all the difference.