Safety a priority for River Rat Race organizers

River Rat Race competitors make their way toward the finish line on the Millers River in 2023.

River Rat Race competitors make their way toward the finish line on the Millers River in 2023. STAFF file PHOTO/PAUL FRANZ

By MAX BOWEN

Athol Daily News Editor

Published: 04-11-2024 5:00 PM

ATHOL — With potentially hundreds of participants in this weekend’s Athol Orange River Rat Race, making sure there aren’t any problems could be a challenge, but it’s one organizers say they are ready for.

Jason Rushford is the event’s water safety director, a role he took on two years ago when former Athol Fire Chief Tom Lozier stepped down from the position. It’s a multifaceted role, and Rushford said it begins with obtaining the state permits for the event. Once that’s done, he works with the Army Corps of Engineers at Birch Hill Dam to ensure the water levels of the Millers River — where the event takes place — are where they need to be.

Rushford said the proper levels were established years ago and are strictly maintained. He said the Army Corps of Engineers holds back water from the dam beginning in January or February and releases it as needed.

“Then they do a calculated release of water,” he said. “If the river is too high they can hold back and not release a certain amount of water.”

Rushford said this work involves taking into account the expected weather and what has already happened. The Corps also monitors incoming rain and water caused by melting snow.

“They have the ability somehow to do their magic to make the modifications,” he said.

Rushford is a lieutenant with the Orange Fire Department and has been with the department for 25 years and on the water rescue boat for 23 years. He said that when Lozier announced he was stepping down as the water safety director, Rushford shadowed him to learn about the role.

“The first year was exciting,” he said. “Tommy had an excellent foundation for the safety plan. I followed his lead and what he built on.”

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Rushford credited the safety personnel involved with the Rat Race. This includes Northfield Dive Rescue, Northfield Fire, Athol Fire, the Mass State Police Marine Unit, Orange Fire, Phillipston Fire, divers from the State Police Underwater Recovery Team and the state Environmental Police.

Race adviser Jim McIntosh said he could only recall one significant emergency which occurred when a race participant suffered a heart attack during the competition. Luckily, he said, the man was treated at the scene, transferred to an area hospital, and survived.

“Safety is the biggest concern we have. We have help from the Army Corps of Engineers, which controls the waterway,” he said. “We get permits from the state and meet with the Selectboards in both Athol and Orange for approval.”

Rushford said that when the race begins, three vessels with the Athol Fire Department, Environmental Police and State Police go ahead of the participants to perform a safety sweep and ensure there aren’t any obstacles or people in the water. Orange Fire watches for the spectators and a boat with the Northfield Fire Department is in the lead, ahead of the canoes, while the Northfield Dive Team has boats mixed in with the canoes. Phillipston Fire brings up the rear to protect the last of the participants.

Near the end of the race, boats are in place to keep people safe from the dam and safety personnel assist with removing the canoes from the water after crossing the finish line.

“They’re physically helping remove the paddlers,” Rushford said. “That process alleviates a lot of congestion toward the bridge. We have a real good foundation from Tommy Lozier.”

Max Bowen can be reached at mbowen@atholdailynews.com or 413-930-4074.

Athol Daily News Correspondent Greg Vine contributed to this report.