Marine Police has accomplished much in 50 years

Published 4:48 pm Monday, April 6, 2009

From humble beginnings in 1959, the Alabama Marine Police Division has moved to the forefront of the nation’s effort to make waterways a safer place to enjoy the wonders of Alabama’s vast aquatic resources.

The Marine Police Division has been honored by a Joint Resolution of the Alabama Legislature, recognizing its 50th anniversary and its commitment to safety on Alabama’s waters, which encompasses 1.2 million acres of surface area.

“Fifty years is a big milestone for any agency that serves the public,” said John T. Jenkins, Director of Marine Police. “During those 50 years, Alabama has been one of the leaders in water safety across the nation. We were the first, in 1978, to require an emergency cutoff (kill) switch.

“We actually passed one of the most comprehensive boating safety regulations in the nation when the Legislature passed the Boaters Safety Reform Act (aka Roberson-Archer Act) in 1994. That made Alabama the first state in the nation to require an operator’s license. We were the first state in the nation to make boater education mandatory in the public school system. In 2001, the act was updated to establish blood alcohol levels for boating under the influence enforcement, and it enhanced our boating regulations overall.”

Marine Police currently has two pieces of legislation in the current session. One has passed and is awaiting Gov. (Bob) Riley’s signature. That bill increases the property damage to $2,000 before an accident report is required. Current law requires a report for damages of $50 and greater. “This puts us in line with all other states and the Coast Guard,” Jenkins said.

The other legislation is a boat theft bill that prohibits the falsification of the identification number or registration of a vessel or vessel trailer and provides for criminal penalties, including possession of stolen equipment. It also provides for forfeiture procedures under certain conditions. The legislation is out of committee in both houses, awaiting votes.

With 38 years of service in Marine Police, Major Bob Huffaker has personally witnessed a great deal of the progress from the effort to increase boating safety education and enforcement.

“The number of fatalities when I started in 1971 through the 1980s up until the Boating Safety Reform Act remained consistently high,” Huffaker said. “One year we had 52 boating-related fatalities. We’ve seen a dramatic reduction in fatalities since the Boating Safety Reform Act. The year after we implemented the vessel operator’s license, we saw a 47-percent reduction in fatalities to 17. Fatalities have been running in the teens since 1998.”

Huffaker said he has seen the number of Marine Police personnel fluctuate over the years, from a low of 28 to the current 64, which includes officers and supervisors. Those officers must patrol all 67 counties and multiple river systems – Tennessee, Coosa, Tallapoosa, Warrior, Alabama, Tombigbee, Chattahoochee and Mobile rivers, as well as the Mobile Delta, Mobile Bay and coastal waters from Orange Beach to Grand Bay.

“The main thing I’ve seen is the mass reduction in fatalities on Alabama’s waterways,” Huffaker said. “We have a better educated and more knowledgeable boating community than we had in the earlier days. Educated boaters are safer boaters.”

Lt. Erica Shipman, who is charge of education and the boat operator licenses, thinks the portion of the Boating Safety Reform Act that required education through boating safety classes as a part of the license process as a key factor in the increase in safety on Alabama’s waters.

“Because of that, we have seen dramatic decreases in fatalities and even our accidents on the water,” Shipman said. “Other states across the nation look to us to see what we’ve done to reduce our fatalities and our accident statistics. We’ve even had Australia and other countries call here to see what our program consists of because we have had such dramatic reductions.”

In Alabama anyone who operates a boat has to have a boater (vessel) operator’s license. Anyone 12 years and older must possess the license, although operators who are less than 14 years old must have someone 21 years old or older on board, who also has a vessel operator’s license in possession, and is seated in a position to take immediate control of the vessel if necessary.

The vessel operator’s license can be acquired after successful completion of a boating safety class offered by Marine Police, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary or the U.S. Power Squadron. Online course are available and An alternative is to take a written examination at any Department of Public Safety Driver License Office in the state. Study materials are available at those offices. Boaters born before April 28, 1954 are exempt from the examination requirements.

“The class is an all-around boating course that is extremely comprehensive,” Shipman said. “It covers rules of the road, safety, aids to navigation, trailering and other issues that make boating safer and more enjoyable. In Alabama, we have licensed over 666,000 boaters to date.”

Jenkins said that more than 273,000 boats are registered in Alabama.

Even with the effort those numbers demand, the Marine Police Division is also wrestling with a cut in funding, which has affected every state agency.

“With the economic downturn, we have had to reevaluate where we have our people, how we patrol,” Jenkins said. “We’re trying to save money anyway possible, just like any other agency. We’re not filling some of our open positions. We’ve looking for more fuel-efficient operation of our vehicles and vessels. We’re trying different patrol methods, targeting areas of higher activity. We’ve taken a little over a 10-percent cut in our spending authority for this year and next. We’re trying to work to make sure that doesn’t impact our service to the public.

“Our main role is, very simply, to make sure that our boaters are as safe as possible – to educate them and enforce the law.”