From twelve officers and ten boats in 1960 to a state-of-the-art enforcement agency now considered one of the best in the nation
Governor John Patterson signed legislative act 576 on November 19, 1959, creating Alabama’s Water Safety Division. But it wasn’t until January of 1960 that enough money from boater registration fees made it possible for the fledgling agency to take to the water to enforce the boating laws.
The Water Safety Division, as it was known then, hired ten officers, two supervisors and purchased ten boats. These ten officers were stretched thin, to say the least, as each officer was responsible for enforcing the law in eight to ten counties. In 1962, they also assumed the responsibility for marking hazardous areas with buoys. They began this program with only 100 homemade buoys. Today the 64 officers of the Marine Police oversee and maintain 1,640 buoys to protect Alabama boater from water hazards.
John T. Jenkins, Director, oversees the Marine Police today.
"I’m very proud to be a part of this agency as it celebrates 50 years of serving and protecting the citizens of Alabama. I am especially proud we are at the forefront of progressive boating laws across the country. We passed one of the most comprehensive boating safety regulations in the nation with the Boaters Safety Reform Act (Roberson-Archer Act) in 1994. We were the first state in the nation to require an operator’s license for a vessel, the first state to make boating education mandatory in the public school system and the first state to require an emergency cut off switch on a boat. We have an active boating program in Alabama. These laws and their enforcement have reduced the boating fatalities from 40 to 50 annually to 17 or 18 a year now," Jenkins said.
Major Bob Huffaker has been with the Alabama Marine Police for 38 years. The agency was only 12 years old when he went to work as a rookie water patrolman.
"In the early days we had trouble getting boating accidents reported. Today we investigate all collision-type accidents, fatalities and serious injuries. I’ve seen the Marine Police fluctuate from as low as 28 officers to its present strength of 64 officers. Also, in the early days, the boating laws were inadequate, especially the boating under the influence or BUI law. The early BUI laws were very vague and hard to enforce. Today it is much clearer and is basically the same as the vehicular laws as they pertain to drinking," Huffaker said.
The duties of an Alabama Marine Policeman can be quite varied. One of their primary duties is to patrol the 1.2 million surface-acres of water used by 670,000 licensed boaters in Alabama. Rescue, accident investigation, recovery, buoy placement and maintenance, and education are some other duties.
"Being the largest water-based agency, we are called on to help other agencies when a boat is needed. We help the Oil and Gas Board, FBI, Sheriff Departments and other agencies. Anytime there is a storm or other disaster, we are ready to help. In the last few years we have become involved in homeland security. We keep an eye out for any suspicious activity around bridges, railroad tressels, industries near rivers, nuclear plants or anything that could be a target," Huffaker said.
One thing Huffaker is particularly proud of is the amount of training an Alabama Marine Policeman receives now.
"When I went to work back in 1971, I was sent to Eufaula and got only five days training on how to operate a boat, trailer a boat, back and launch a boat. They went over the basic regulations and I went to work. Today, our training program is a vast improvement. Our officers are exceptionally well-trained today. They are well-versed in Alabama Law, defensive tactics, first aid, swimming, firearms and other subjects. A new officer goes through an eight-week recruit school, then a 12-week course with a field-training officer. They then go through the 480-hour police academy and work with other officers. Basically, a new officer is in some form of training for a full year," Huffaker explained.
Huffacker has also seen a big change in the boats the agency uses.
"The agency used fiberglass boats for many years, but they took such a pounding from so much use, we had to replace them about every three years. Today we use a modern, solidly-built aluminum boat that will last many years. Rather than having to replace the complete boat, we can just repower the unit and use it for many more years," Huffacker stated.
Sergeant John Bozeman has been patrolling Alabama’s water for 21 years. He has also seen a dramatic change in the attitude of boaters.
"Today’s boaters are more educated to the rules of the water and more concerned with safety. I believe the boating safety courses we teach have really had an impact. We still have violators, but if those who don’t obey the boating laws could help in a drowning recovery operation, they would see things in a different light. I’ve also seen a reduction in boating under the influence violations in the last couple of years. People just realize it is not only dangerous, but they can go to jail for it. The average boater I check is usually cooperative, but a Marine Policeman can’t get complacent," Bozeman said.
Boaters born before April 28, 1954, do not have to take a test or course, but they do have to have a V designation on their driver’s license. I fell under this ‘Grandfather Provision,’ but decided to take the course anyway. I’m glad I did and definitely recommend it to anyone who operates a boat. To find out about a boating course in your area, call 1-800-272-7930 or go to www.outdooralabama.com.
Ben Norman is an outdoor writer from Highland Home.