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Montgomery County and Loudoun County, Va., have promised to improve communication between their fire and rescue services following the drowning death of a teenager in the Potomac River this summer.

Fitz Thomas, 16, drowned on June 4 in Goose Creek, which is just off the river on the Virginia side. Some misunderstandings over the location of the call led to a longer response time.

According to a report from the Montgomery County Council’s Public Safety Committee last week, the first call for a reported drowning came in at 5:48 p.m. that day, and Loudoun County paramedics arrived  a little more than a half hour later.

The Washington Post reported last month that communication mishaps between the two jurisdictions led to a delayed response. The call was initially labeled as “Potomac River,” which would normally be handled by Montgomery County responders.

Maryland has jurisdiction over the river, which means Montgomery County Fire & Rescue handles all water rescue calls regardless of location, according to the committee’s report.

During a Public Safety Committee meeting last week, Fire & Rescue Assistant Chief Edward Radcliffe said the report of the drowning at 5:48 p.m. was processed by Montgomery County’s 911 call center and the county’s Fire & Rescue units were dispatched because the call was for a drowning in the river.


According to the transcript, the caller told the 911 operator, “We’re at River Creek, the club in the back, we’re like all swimming in the river. We had a friend swimming and he’s under the water but we like literally cannot find him.”

The operator asked more questions of the caller, according to the transcript, such as how long the group had been swimming, Thomas’s last known location, how long he had been missing and what he looked like.

The operator determined that the caller was at the mouth of Goose Creek and the river using their location information and RapidSOS, a service that emergency responders use to transmit information.


Water rescue boats were dispatched from Edward’s Ferry in Montgomery County because the operator thought that location was the closest to where Thomas was, Radcliffe explained.

“[The call taker] processed the call using our point of entry into the river. Edwards Ferry, fortuitously, is right across the river, and that’s where we were dispatching units to,” he said.

After the first call, the following took place, according to the report:

  • At 6:04 p.m., paramedics were dispatched from Edwards Ferry
  • Between 6:06 and 6:09 p.m. two more callers reported the possible drowning, and Loudoun County’s call center was conferenced in with Montgomery’s after the callers explained that the incident was on the Virginia side
  • At 6:16 p.m., Loudoun County dispatched its paramedics to the scene
  • At 6:24 p.m., Loudoun County units arrived

The Post reported last month that Thomas had been underwater for several minutes before the first call, and that his friends tried to save his life with CPR, but he never regained consciousness.

To address the incident, Montgomery and Loudoun County’s fire and rescue services came up a series of recommendations, among which are:

  • For any call to the river, a first responder will be sent by both jurisdictions to its side of shore.
  • For all Loudoun County calls, Montgomery County’s call center will also be conferenced in.

Montgomery Fire & Rescue Chief Scott Goldstein said during last week’s meeting that the county had adopted the recommendations as of June 19. The goal is to improve efficiency in responder to Potomac River rescues to avoid a similar situation from reoccurring.


“The process moving forward is to have conferencing with both centers until a responder is on the scene,” he said.

Committee member and County Council Member Gabe Albornoz asked if the county is pursuing any new technologies. Cassandra Onley, the acting director of the county’s 911 call center, pointed out that the county is scheduled to switch to Next Generation 9-1-1, or NG911, in the first quarter of 2021.

Currently, 911 calls are routed from a cellphone to the closest cell tower. In a NG911 system, GPS technology helps confirm the caller’s location and the call is routed to the corresponding call center in that jurisdiction.


Onley said, however, that the county’s 911 call takers still ask follow-up questions to callers to determine their location.

“If they’re in a park, we’ll ask where they parked, how far in, how long it took them to walk to where they are. So, yes, we do ask those questions,” she said.

Dan Schere can be reached at