Safety on the water
Local law enforcement is kicking off National Boating Safety Week with an event today in Fort Myers and increased enforcement during the weekend.
The Fort Myers Power Squadron, in conjunction with the Lee County Marine Law Enforcement Task Force, is hosting hands-on boating safety exercises for the public from 10 a.m.-2 p.m. at the Centennial Park Boat Ramp. The free event marks the start of National Boating Safety Week, May 22-28.
During today’s event, attendees have a chance to shoot flare guns, to use fire extinguishers to douse flames aboard a boat and to learn how to use an inflatable life jacket properly. Free vessel safety checks also will be available for those who bring their boat to the event, according to event organizers.
“We want to remind boaters of all aspects of boating safety,” Officer Kevin Knick, current task force coordinator and a member of the Fort Myers Police Department’s Marine Unit, said. “To educate the public on safety concerns.”
The Lee County Marine Law Enforcement Task Force, which was formed in 2003, consists of the Cape Coral Police Department, Fort Myers police, Lee County Sheriff’s Office, U.S. Coast Guard, U.S. Fish & Wildlife Service, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission and Florida Department of Environmental Protection, among some others.
Task force members also are increasing their enforcement for the opening weekend of National Boating Safety Week with an operation called Operation Seawolf. The operation is targeting boating safety education opportunities.
Knick explained that the goal is to inform, not necessarily to write citations.
“We’re going to be educating the boaters,” he said, adding that it does not mean citations will not be issued for those who are found not in compliance.
There were more than 44,000 boats registered for recreational use in Lee County in 2009, according to the Florida Department of Highway Safety and Motor Vehicles.
In 2008, Florida recorded 616 total accidents that resulted in 55 fatalities and 371 injuries and more than $22.7 million in total property damage. That number is lower than the 663 accidents and 75 fatalities recorded in 2007, according to the most recent statistics from the U.S. Coast Guard’s Boating Safety Division.
According to Knick, there are some basic safety points to remember. Each person on the boat should a properly fitting life jacket. They should be worn.
“Any time you can fall overboard,” he said. “You’re going to need it.”
In 2008, the leading cause of death nationwide was drowning, according to the statistics. Out of 510 fatalities, 46 were wearing a life jacket and 459 were not wearing life jackets. For five, it was unknown if a jacket was worn.
Knick also stressed that boaters notify their family or friends about where they are going and when they will be back, also known as having a float plan. In the case that something occurs, authorities know where to start looking.
Taking a boating safety course is also key, he said. The course teaches how to stay safe in the various aspects of boating, as well as covers topics like manatee zones and hazardous objects, and is for new and seasoned boaters.
According to the Boating Safety Division, the top three primary contributing factors for accidents in 2008 were careless or reckless operation, operator inattention and no proper lookout. Operator inexperience came up as fourth.
Knick noted that boaters should always watch their alcohol consumption.
“It’s legal to drink on a boat. You just have to be within the legal limit,” he said. “Be responsible when drinking.”
“Always be aware of your surrounding,” Knick added.
Cpl. Jim Smith, of the CCPD’s Marine Unit, echoed that point.
“Everybody has to be aware of their surroundings. Aware of what’s going on,” he said. “Be diligent, and pay attention to your surroundings.”
While out patrolling the local waterways on Friday, Smith explained that each boat should have life jackets, sound device like a horn or whistle, and one fire extinguisher or more, depending on the size of the vessel. Boats less than 26 feet also should have a throwable, like a floating ring or cushion with handles.
“There’s nothing wrong with having too many life jackets,” he said.
Cpl. Ron Rischmiller, also with the CCPD’s Marine Unit, added that boaters should always check their safety gear before they head out on the waters. Sometimes boaters are unaware of the fact that their fire extinguisher or horn is no longer operational until stopped for a vessel safety inspection.
“I’d say most people are in compliance,” he said. “Or most people want to be in compliance.”
On Friday, Smith and Rischmiller stopped Cape residents Joe and Barbara Randazza to conduct a safety check and inform the couple about National Boating Safety Week. Boaters since moving to the city in 1987, the couple called safety education “very important” to preventing injuries on boats.
“Because there’s too many accidents happening,” Barbara Randazza said. “They’re careless, not paying attention.”
She welcomed the safety check by the marine officers, not minding one bit.
“I think it’s very important,” Randazza said. “I’m glad they’re watching out for me and other folk.”
Both prior participants in a boating safety course, they passed the vessel safety check with flying colors on Friday, having all the required equipment.
“We’re not about writing tickets,” Rischmiller said. “We’re about educating the public.”
“What we do is not about writing tickets,” he said.
According to Smith, the CCPD’s Marine Unit will look for the same things during the weekend operation that they look for on a daily basis, including safety compliance and boat registration. Officers could stop more boats simply to tell their operators of National Boating Safety Week, he added.
“Instead of letting people go by, we may pull people over to inform them,” Smith said.
“Most people are pretty good about it,” he added.
The CCPD’s Volunteer Marine Unit will also be out patrolling local waterways during Operation Seawolf. Smith and Rischmiller explained that the volunteers cannot conduct safety checks or write citations, but they will offer aid when possible and their presence will help to stimulate compliance among boaters.
“They’re basically the eyes for us,” Rischmiller said.
This year, the Lee County Marine Law Enforcement Task Force and Marine Emergency Response Team are stressing the importance of marine VHF radios and Digital Selective Calling, or DSC, hook-ups for the radios. DSC allows boaters to instantly send an automatically formatted distress alert.
The alert can be received by the U.S. Coast Guard or other rescue authority anywhere in the world when properly tied into a GPS unit. According to Knick, other boats can tap into the call and it has a greater range than a cell phone.
Task force members are distributing information and free demonstration videos on the correct installation of DSC hook-ups at the Fort Myers event.
The Centennial Park Boat Ramp is at 2000 E. First St. in Fort Myers.
For more information about boating safety, visit: www.myfwc.com.