ODNR Watercraft Officers Celebrate 25 Years of Existence
September 12, 1997
COLUMBUS, OH -- September, 1972. U.S. troops were still in Viet Nam. Watergate had not become a household word yet. And 17 men and women began training to become Ohio's first state watercraft officers.
The creation of the education and enforcement section within ODNR's Division of Watercraft was the result of a few key factors, including the enactment of the Federal Boat Safety Act in 1971. The act authorized funding for state education and enforcement programs and empowered states to expand their boating programs.
A lot has changed since the first state watercraft officers took to the water. The original officers were disbursed to six field offices housed in available space at state parks, which ranged from office space to sheds. Over the years, the officers ranks have grown to the present day status of 54 officers located in nine field offices throughout Ohio.
Today, five of the original officers remain with the Division of Watercraft, all as field supervisors. Joe Barile, supervisor of the Akron watercraft office and originally assigned to Geneva State Park recalls the early years as a learning process. "We ranged in age from 22 to 27 and knew that everything we did was primarily uncharted territory. There was a great sense that we were saving lives and making our waters a safer place to be," Barile said.
The impact the Division of Watercraft field program has had on boating safety is significant. Before education and enforcement efforts began, the average fatality rate in Ohio was around 20 boaters per 100,000 registered boats. In 1996, with nearly twice as many boats registered than in 1972, the fatality rate was 2.5 boaters per 100,000 boats.
"The Boating Safety Program has definitely made boating safer," said Division of Watercraft Chief Jeff Hoedt. "Our Watercraft Officers have been able to change boaters' attitudes, whether by a program they presented or even a ticket they wrote. The result is safer waterways."
Barile agrees. "In the early 1970s it was not uncommon to inspect a boat that did not have life jackets on board. We have come a long way in educating boaters not only of the value of the life jacket but the importance of wearing it at all times," he said.
Recreational boaters are not the only folks who have benefitted from the expertise of Ohio's watercraft officers. Wanting to keep its officers safe led the division to pioneer river rescue methods that kept the rescuer out of the water and away from the recirculating currents that trapped victims. The Division of Watercraft not only trained their officers, but offered their knowledge to other rescue agencies as well. As a result, thousands of successful rescues have occurred without the loss of any rescue personnel.
Equipping and training officers has evolved over the years as well. In 1972, officers were issued a pair of handcuffs and mace and there was one nightstick baton per boat. The first patrol boats were recreational boats adapted to meet the needs of enforcement. Today, officers are equipped with items you would find on any police officer: baton, handcuffs, ammunition and a firearm. Officers now work out of boats built specifically for law enforcement and search and rescue activities. The result is a more well-rounded officer, better equipped to meet the needs of the public.
The original officers faced challenges to their authority from the public as well as skepticism of their effectiveness by their peers. Today's field staff faces almost opposite challenges. "Today, boaters want more officers on the water to do things which in some cases we haven't the authority to do," said Barile. "It's funny to think of all the times we heard `What gives you the right to inspect my boat?' in the early days. Now it's `Why can't you throw that guy off the lake?'"
Due to its uniqueness as an agency that deals exclusively with boating, the Ohio Division of Watercraft has become a national leader in boating education and enforcement.
The pace of boating has also changed in the last quarter of a century. The energy crisis of the early 1970s led to the popularity of non-powered boats such as sailboats and canoes. Today fast, small personal watercraft, more commonly recognized by the brand names "JetSki" and "Wave Runner" keep officers busy. In 1996, personal watercraft made up seven percent of the boats registered in Ohio, but were involved in 26 percent of all reported boating accidents.
Twenty-five years later, the Ohio Division of Watercraft is still striving to find new ways to meet boater's needs. Last year, the division conducted a series of public meetings to allow boater input to help shape the Division's future direction.
For further information contact Dennis Evans, Division of Watercraft, (614) 265-6695, or Jim Lynch, ODNR Media Relations, (614) 265-6886.