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Lose your boat on the river? Call 911

Dispatchers hope to avoid unnecessary responses to overturned watercraft
Mountain Waters Rafting guides and guides-in-training intentionally flip a raft during a training in 2016. Boaters who lose their watercraft are being asked to call 911 and inform dispatch that they are safe to prevent unnecessary responses. (Jerry McBride/Durango Herald file)

At 3:58 p.m. May 26, the Durango/La Plata Emergency dispatch center received a 911 call from someone camping along Vallecito Creek. A kayak had come speeding down the rushing waterway without a human in the cockpit.

The call prompted a standard response – the fire chief, fire captain, two additional firefighters from the Upper Pine River Fire Protection District, a drone, the emergency medical services supervisor and two ambulances were all dispatched to the area.

Firefighters requested that La Plata County Search and Rescue assist, given that the steep canyon walls along the creek could have trapped the kayaker(s) in the waterway.

Law enforcement began to run license plates of vehicles parked in the area to begin contacting whoever may have owned the kayak.

Then, 42 minutes into the response, dispatch received a call from a woman who said she had given two kayakers a ride after they had overturned and lost their watercraft.

Within 10 minutes, first responders had connected with the boaters to confirm that it was in fact their boat that had prompted the response, and confirmed that no medical services were needed.

Situations like this are all too common, emergency service providers say.

With high water flushing through river and creek beds, ready to overturn the water sports enthusiasts flocking to the area, first responders are putting out a plea: If you lose your boat in the river but make it safely to shore, call 911.

“If they have lost their watercraft and they think we're going to be out looking for them, I want them to call 911 and tell us, ‘I was dumped out of my raft but I'm OK and this is where I am,’ and then we can connect them with the resources,” said Zeta Fail, director of 911 dispatch.

Although callers in that situation are not actively in an emergency, the call can lead to a drastic reduction in resource expenditures.

“When those resources are going on a call like that, they are obviously not available for everything else that is going on: car accidents, heart attacks, structure fires and everything else,” said Durango Fire Protection District Chief Hal Doughty.

In the age of cellphones, Doughty said dispatch often receives “drive-by” 911 calls from reporting parties who see something, but don’t stick around long enough to communicate further.

“If you're a person that's calling and reporting one of those incidents, (it’s very helpful) to either stay on the line or call back and give updates to the dispatch center as things change,” Doughty said.

Calls about flipped rafts come in frequently, Doughty said. Four water rescues have already been initiated in the last month, according to Fail.

The challenge is that each has to be addressed as if lives are in danger. And when first responders come upon a boat stuck along the river – a common call – they don’t know if the event began there, dragging passengers downstream, or ended there, meaning passengers are likely upstream.

In the absence of more information, the response it often an hourslong shoreline search in both directions.

The people at the center of these calls are typically inexperienced boaters, Doughty said. And with the Animas River still peaking each day at more than 4,000 cubic feet per second, his recommendation to inexperienced boaters is to find a local guide familiar with the area.


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