Posted: Thursday, May 24th 2012 at 5:01pm
Officials urge added caution on state's lakes, highways
By Rob Moore
Cpl. Jason Robertson of the Georgia Department of Natural Resources patrols Lake Lanier Thursday morning. (Photo/Rob Moore)
GAINESVILLE – Emergency personnel gathered at Laurel Park in Hall County Thursday morning to call attention to water and driving safety as the Memorial Day weekend arrives.
“This is a big weekend for all of us,” said Capt. Mark Padgett, region supervisor for the Georgia Department of Natural Resources. “For many people, this holiday weekend signals the beginning of the summertime, and with that families and friends get together on the lakes and around the lakes. We’re here today because we have so many people who will be around this lake this weekend.”
“I remember last year on Memorial weekend we were out less than an hour before we got the first drowning call,” Padgett said. “We want to try to eliminate things like that.”
“We’re out here to enforce boating laws and regulations on the public waters,” Padgett said. “I’m thrilled to be joined by representatives of other law enforcement agencies here today – Georgia State Patrol, U.S. Coast Guard Auxiliary, U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Hall County Sheriff’s Office Marine Patrol, Hall County Fire and Rescue, Forsyth County, Gwinnett County, the Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau, TEAM Georgia and our Department of Natural Resources staff,” Padgett said. “If this message gets out and it does save one person this weekend, then we’ve done our job. It is important that we get this message out.”
Sgt. Mike Burgamy of the DNR spoke about the Boat Sober-Boat Safe campaign.
“Last year, we had 109 boating incidents, 11 boating fatalities, 168 BUI arrests, and 49 drownings statewide,” Burgamy said. “This year already on Lake Lanier we’ve had seven boating incidences with one fatality and two drownings. It’s imperative that we really take this message to the public and let them know how important it is to boat sober.”
“Last year, conservation rangers made 168 boating under the influence arrests and alcohol was a factor in almost 17 percent of all the boating incidents we had,” Burgamy said. “However, it’s not illegal to have an open container on the waterways of the state, but it is important that you maintain your self-control when you’re out there if you’re going to use alcohol. Know that if you are over 21 years of age and you register a 0.10 or higher, you are per se deemed under the influence of alcohol. ”
“The Georgia Department of Natural Resources, along with all my counterparts behind me, we are going to aggressively enforce not only boating under the influence but driving under the influence as well,” Burgamy said. “As folks get off the lake, they’ve got to get in vehicles and all the counterparts you see behind me are taking this message very seriously and they will be out in force.”
To stay safe on the lakes, Burgamy encourages people to take a boating safety class, make sure their boats are properly outfitted with all the required safety equipment, and to make sure lights are operational and used properly at night.
“Improper lights is one of the major causes of boat accidents at nighttime, so make sure your lights are working and make sure the boat’s ready to go,” Burgamy said.
Sgt. Lee Brown of the DNR’s Wear It Campaign stressed the importance of proper floatation devices through the department’s Wear It Campaign.
Through the Wear It Campaign, reminder messages are painted and posted around Lake Lanier. People who see those may be eligible for prizes, Brown said.
“Wearing your lifejacket is one of the best ways to save your life while you’re in the water, whether you’re swimming or boating,” Brown said. “There are approximately 500 people every year that drown. We had 49 last year, as Sgt. Burgamy said, in the state of Georgia alone, and we’ve already had two this year on Lake Lanier – one is too many.”
“Accidents can happen real quick when you’re in a boat,” Brown said.
He stressed rangers frequently see lifejackets tied in or stowed, not readily accessible.
“You have those lifejackets out where you can get ‘em, and not stowed away or tied somewhere,” he urged.
“Here are some lifejacket facts that every boater needs to know. Every boat in Georgia has to have a wearable lifejacket for each person on board,” Brown said. “Children under 10 – including infants -- have to have it on when that boat is moving. Moving is drifting, electric motor, paddling, under sail, or under power. You wouldn’t believe the number of infants that we see on boats that don’t have a lifejacket on, but they do make an infant lifejacket that will support their head if they were to fall in the water.”
Brown said lifejackets have evolved from the bulky orange ones that sometimes can be restrictive. He urged those purchasing lifejackets to read all warning labels, classifications, and weight guidelines.
“When we’re out checking boats, we’ll have people show us their lifejackets,” Brown said. “We’ll have adults show us children’s lifejackets, we’ll see children have on an adult lifejacket.”
Brown said if a child falls into the water in an adult lifejacket, “it’s going to rise above them and not support them,” meaning the lifejacket may float and the child may go under.
“Or if an adult tries to use a child jacket, it’s too small for them,” Brown said. “You’ve got to make sure you have the appropriate size lifejacket for each person on board.”
“Lifejackets don’t work if you don’t wear them!” Brown said. “It’s not mandatory for everybody to wear one, except the children under 10. Make sure you have those lifejackets where you can get your hands on them, but the best thing to do is to wear them.”
Capt. Grady Sanford, Troop B commander for the Georgia State Patrol, said troopers will be out in force this weekend to combat violators.
“We’ll start the 78-hour holiday patrol beginning Friday at 6 p.m. running through midnight Memorial Day,” Sanford said. “This weekend also has a lot of other things going on besides the holiday. We’ve got festivals, family gatherings, graduations going on, and we also have Click It or Ticket still going on, so we want everybody to practice safe driving, wear their seatbelts, and if you happen to want to drink a beer or any kind of alcoholic beverage, please get a designated driver because we don’t want anything to happen to anybody.”
During the Memorial Day travel period in 2011, there were 312 traffic crashes, resulting in 236 injuries, and 13 deaths. Three of those victims were motorcycle operators and one was killed in an ATV incident. Six of the fatalities were DUI drivers.
“Us and DNR are working hand in hand this weekend, with the boats and with the cars,” Sanford said.
Sanford said DUI arrests are up almost 200 percent in Hall County due to stepped-up patrols, and about 67 percent in the area.
Nick Baggett, natural resource manager for the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers at Lake Lanier, spoke about the Corps’ commitment to public safety and water safety.
“We work with all levels of law enforcement and first responders,” Baggett said. “We do our best to work as a team.”
“We have dedicated our full ranger staff that are available to work the parks, the campgrounds and the public property,” Baggett said. “We will have one boat out, but we’re doing everything we can to promote water safety and public safety. Our goal always is to dedicate ourselves to our visitors, working with them and hoping they will have a safe and enjoyable time.”
Lake Lanier currently is approximately six feet below its full pool of 1,071, he said.
“Given our current conditions, it can be extremely dangerous to boat at night, so we want to tell our visitors if they do plan to come and boat at Lake Lanier at night, that they are extra cautious and they pay attention to hazards that they may not normally see during full lake levels,” Baggett said.
Several counties have lengthy shoreline on the lake.
“Hall County has about 540 miles of shoreline on Lake Lanier,” said Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks of Hall County Sheriff’s Office. “With that being the case, we value the partnerships that we have with these other agencies that are here today. That’s a lot of area to cover. They have a lot of responsibility, a lot of territory to cover, so we really rely on these partnerships.”
“In 2011, our reserve program committed 270 hours of time to the lake patrol at no cost to the citizens of Hall County,” Wilbanks said.
That’s because marine patrol deputies donate their time and operate in teams on jet skis, conducting safety patrols in the most heavily-frequented areas of the lake. The jet skis are obtained at no cost every year through a partnership with the manufacturer (Yamaha) and Park Marine in Gainesville.
Patrol boat operations are conducted by a full-time deputy and reserve deputies.
“They work in tandem with the Georgia Department of Natural Resources, the Coast Guard Auxiliary, as well as the Corps of Engineers in enforcing boating safety laws, conducting safety education sessions and so forth,” Wilbanks said.
A non-law enforcement speaker at Thursday’s event was Hall County Fire Chief David Kimbrell.
“We’re not here for enforcement, we’re here for response,” Kimbrell said. “We are on the lake on weekends and holidays with our marine rescue team.”
“We also want to echo what the other law enforcement have said with lifejackets,” Kimbrell said. “Of the 15 drownings that we had last year and also the two we’ve had this year, none of those people we’ve recovered had on a lifejacket.”
Kimbrell said his department has initiated Operation Float, promoting constant wearing of lifejackets; learn to swim and always swim with a buddy; obey all signs; always supervise children around the water; and think before you drink.
Mike Little of Hall County Parks and Leisure welcomed participants to Laurel Park, one of three parks in the system that is a lakefront park.
“On behalf of the citizens of Hall County, all our park patrons and especially our department, we appreciate what all these agencies do to serve our communities,” Little said.
Jennifer Norman of Lake Lanier Convention and Visitors Bureau encouraged lake users to have fun.
“One of the ways that we’re doing that is by launching our new phone app, the Best of Lake Lanier,” Norman said. “It’s available on iPhone and Android and it tells you things like the closest marina, the best place to have a meal on the lake, a place to stay if you do drink too much and need to spend the night, a way to get transportation, and all the tourist attractions that there are at the lake. We have millions of visitors every year on Lake Lanier and hopefully this Best of Lake Lanier app will help them have a great experience on the lake. Slipawaytoday.com will give you more information on the app.”
Ron Fennel, chairman of TEAM Georgia, talked about his organization’s safety programs.
“TEAM Georgia was created in 1985 to develop strategies and programs to encourage safe and sober transportation alternatives,” Fennel said. “Our workload has only grown with new technology and Georgia’s growing population, and we urge Georgians to avoid distracted driving and stay focused on safe travel, whether it’s on the roads or the waterways.”
“Like vehicle drivers, boat operators must stay sober, watch their speed, and refrain from reckless driving,” Fennel said. “To all boat operators and to the hundreds of thousands of Georgians who are passengers in these boats on our waterways, we have a simple message: Play it safe while afloat this summer in Georgia.”
“We ask that you merely designate a skipper when you get out on the waterways,” Fennel said.
A Designated Skipper form can be found on the organization’s website at www.teamgeorgia.net under Boating Safety.
For more on boating laws and restrictions, boating safety, and navigation rules, log on to http://www.georgiawildlife.com/boating.
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