In Our View: Safer Waterways

Marine Patrol performs multiple functions in water-rich Clark County

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Mention the Clark County Sheriff’s Office to local residents and their first thought might be the patrol cars that enforce traffic laws in areas not within the county’s eight cities. Or they might think of the crucial first responders to criminal activities in those areas, or the many training and community outreach programs that the department offers. But when you remind local folks that our almost-square county is defined on three sides by bodies of water, a different image emerges.

Those three sides are patrolled by the Clark County Sheriff’s Marine Patrol, primarily lead officer Deputy Todd Baker and Deputy Dick Butler and another 19 deputies who also work the water. Their enforcement areas include 44 miles of the Columbia River, 30 miles on Merwin and Yale reservoirs and other bodies of water throughout the county. They not only enforce state and county laws, but help in emergencies, participate in rescue and recovery operations, patrol marinas, check for boating licenses and title registrations, and conduct education programs.

So here’s a tip of the Columbian cap to a unit that not only responds to accidents and other emergencies but also saves an incalculable number of lives with its public awareness programs.

If you’re guessing that life jacket violations are No. 1 on their list of citations, you’re correct, and it’s easy to see why: The law requiring enough life jackets for everyone on board, and they must be worn by everyone 12 and younger, is so obviously necessary, it’s difficult to understand why anyone would inadvertently — or intentionally — break it.

That’s why the Sheriff’s Department Marine Patrol follows a zero-tolerance policy and issues no warnings, only citations. The fine is $87 per violation, which is both a bargain and an investment considering that your life might have just been saved.

The Marine Patrol uses five boats and two individual water craft. The top-of-the-line vessel is a 24-foot Sea Sport with twin V6 Mercury engines and an 80-gallon gas tank. It’s based at the Port of Vancouver and is used primarily for patrolling the Columbia River. Bells and whistles on the craft include a police laptop, radar, chart plotter, GPS, depth sounder, radio monitoring the U.S. Coast Guard and Multnomah County, and a FLIR thermal imaging camera.

Much of the Marine Patrol’s most valuable service to county residents is conducted on dry land, inside classrooms, teaching boating safety classes. And in this state with so many waterways, boating safety is taken seriously. State law requires all boaters 35 and younger to pass an approved boating course before operating a boat whose engine is 15 horsepower or greater.

Marine Patrol members also participate in disaster drills and rescue-operation training with other law enforcement agencies. Among the training activities are dive rescue and water recovery operations. When your boat is incapacitated, they’ll see that you get help. When your licenses and title registrations check out, they’ll thank you and wish you well. (Deputies conduct about 2,000 inspections a year and performed more than 500 in July.) And when your kids are wearing life jackets, they might get free ice cream cone certificates from the officers.

Boating is not for the under-informed or the ill-prepared. “I think it’s always dangerous,” Baker said in a Monday Columbian story when talking about the Columbia River. He also recalled two Clark County men who drowned in the river near Vancouver this summer: “They’d be alive today if they’d had a life jacket on.”

We’re glad the Marine Patrol is riding the waves, monitoring the marinas and helping in the training classrooms of Clark County.