Let’s face it: seeing a bright yellow fireboat with flashing red lights and sirens rushing to a call on Smith Mountain Lake can be eye-catching. However, these first responders often are not afforded the same courtesy as their counterparts on land, according to Todd Ohlerich, chief of the Smith Mountain Lake Marine Volunteer Fire Department.
That’s why Oherlich wants to share the following message with boaters: “Do what you do on roads — move over, get over and slow down.”
Oftentimes, Oherlich said when fireboats are responding to calls, other boaters like to rubberneck around them. There have been numerous instances where this has happened, too, including one call about two weeks ago. As SMLMVFD volunteers were responding to a call about a sunken boat, Ohlerich said boaters were closing in on them to gawk.
“People were coming in really close and causing wakes,” he said.
In another instance a few months ago, a fireboat was attempting to rescue a disabled boat that was being pushed toward the shoreline in high winds. Ohlerich said boaters were coming within 100 feet to get a closer look.
“And one was even pulling a tuber,” he said. “They just continued to look like they’re doing nothing wrong.”
When this happens, Oherlich said it actually can make an ordinary situation more difficult and dangerous as incoming boats that slow down quickly create large waves and can swamp the rescuers.
“Common sense would prevail to keep your distance,” he added.
The all-volunteer department has eight fireboats stationed at locations around the lake, as well as one jet boat that can be used to respond to calls in shallow water, Oherlich said.
A team of nearly 50 volunteers work year-round to answer an average of 350 calls. However, because of boaters taking to the water to social distance during the COVID-19 pandemic and flooding over Memorial Day weekend, this spring has been busier than in years past, Oherlich said.
“We’ll probably be a little up (in calls) if I had to guess,” he said.
In addition to responding to on-water emergencies, the department has been working for several years to build its first-ever headquarters on donated land between the Oak Grove Boat Access Facility and the Smith Mountain Lake Coast Guard Auxiliary.
Once constructed, the building will allow the department to store equipment and materials in one, easy to access, location, as well as have office space and a place for meetings.
More information about the department is on the Smith Mountain Lake Marine Fire Department Facebook page and at smlfireboats.com.