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May 25, 2012
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Tom Burrell Patrolling the Waterways
with Tom Burrell

Reminders for safe operation of your patrol boat

Sacrificing your safety for the sake of comfort, cutting corners, saving time, or going fast simply because you can will not assist you in performing you duties

In ancient times, sailors put to sea amidst fear of disappearance, death or serious injury being part of their everyday life. Stories of sea monsters devouring ships, mermaids luring seamen onto reefs, and even whole flotillas falling off the end of the earth are daily reminders of the dangers of shipboard life.

As far-fetched as these stories are they were important reminders of how dangerous living and working aboard a ship could be. As bad as battle could be, the real danger was simply moving about the deck and performing everyday tasks. Falls overboard, injuries from shifting equipment, and being swept overboard during unexpected storms were the unseen killers faced between enemy engagements.

While modern maritime enforcement officers do not need to worry about devastating broadsides, we do still face the day to day dangers of working on the water. And as we begin this Memorial Day weekend, with vastly increased maritime patrols putting into the water, now is an excellent time for some basic reminders for safe operation of your police boat. 

Wear Your Vest
Every law enforcement officer has heard the importance of wearing their vest, although with marine officers this means not only wearing a ballistic vest but also a personal floatation device – more commonly known as a “life vest”

There’s a reason for this. One of the most common boating fatalities is drowning as a result of falling overboard. We all know this because we are often the ones to deal with the aftermath. What we fail to remember is that falls are not always the result of clumsy actions by amateurs. Even an experienced boater can end up in the water unexpectedly following their craft striking an unseen obstruction, because of a rogue wave or wake causing abrupt change in course or a slip on a wet deck.

Regardless of the cause, the end result is you being in the water wearing not shorts and a t-shirt but close to twenty pounds of duty equipment and clothing.

I’ll be the first to admit that I did not always wear my PFD. In fact, when I was a young officer it would have been more likely that you would have found my PFD hanging on my chair back as my back. Like most boaters I had several “reasons” for not wearing a PFD.

It’s too hot...
It gets in the way...
It won’t happen to me...

Although I found reasons to justify my actions, I was wrong.

Today, I not only know better, but I know that modern PFDs are available in many styles designed especially for law enforcement which counter these claims. Regardless of your assignment, the weather or the gear you may be carrying there is now a PFD designed to protect you while on the water.

Stow Your Gear
Another danger modern boaters share with their forefathers is that posed by loose gear. This danger was so great that the phrase loose cannon, and the danger it implies, comes from the very real danger an unsecured piece of armament posed to both sailors and the ship itself. While I doubt any department includes cannons as a part of their regular issue, there are still plenty of items which could be turned from a tool to a danger if left unsecured.

I understand that there are times when the paces of the day’s activities make it easy to simply put a piece of often-used-equipment, like a boat hook, within easy reach instead of stowing it after every use. However, what happens when you become involved in an unexpected high speed operation or stormy conditions? That boat hook becomes a deadly projectile. Although loose lines, boarding ladders or gear bags may not become airborne they can be dangerous trip hazards.

Speed Kills
Face it, cops like to go fast. Whether it is a car, motorcycle or watercraft it can be a rush to go fast, especially when fast means faster than the average citizen is allowed to drive. Again, I’ve been trapped by the adrenaline rush of racing across the water, flying off the tops of waves and feeling unstoppable. But, sometimes speed is neither necessary nor safe.

None of us can forget the unfortunate events surrounding the fatal accident involving a USCG Fastboat and civilian vessel during the 2009 Light Parade in San Francisco. While I have no firsthand knowledge of the incident, I have reviewed the official report released by the Coast Guard.

Although there is some dispute concerning specific actions of individual crewmembers, what is not in dispute is that the vessel was responding to a non-life threatening situation by operating a high speed in a congested area during reduced light. The scariest part of this incident is it could have involved anyone one of us. Who among us can honestly say that we have not acted in a similar manner, saved only by the fact that tragedy was averted?

Bottom line, speed kills when not properly applied.

Lead by Example
Safe operation of you patrol vessel is no different than the safe operation of your patrol vehicle. Not only is it necessary to set an example to the public, but it also sets an example for the up and coming officers who are learning from your example. If you do it so will they — good, bad or otherwise.

Most important of all it is the first step in ensuring that you return home safely at the end of your shift. Sacrificing your safety for the sake of comfort, cutting corners, to save time, or going fast simply because you can will not assist you in performing you duties. Doing so can contribute to the ever-increasing rate at which officers are injured or killed in the line of duty. 


About the author

Tom Burrell began his career in maritime enforcement in 1992 when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, following his service in the USMC Reserves during Desert Storm. He would see service in Key West, (Fla.) Norfolk, Va., and New York City, both afloat and ashore with duties which ranged from drug and alien interdiction to recreational boating safety. During this time he would serve in a variety of positions including boarding team member, boarding officer, boat crew, coxswain, and master helmsman. Achievements include Coxswain “C” School Honor Graduate, numerous Humanitarian Service awards and involvement in several high profile joint operations — including the security for JFK International Airport during the United Nations 50th Anniversary.

In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission as a Waterways Conservation Officer, a position which would include posting in both the rural north central region, and later in suburban Philadelphia. In 2002 he was promoted to patrol supervisor for the South Central Region and received the PA DUI Association “Top Gun” Award for his efforts in apprehending boaters who were under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance. Tom is currently a Captain assigned to Headquarters. He is also an instructor in the areas of firearms, hand gun retention, handcuffing, OC spray, First Aid & CPR, and Boating Under the Influence Detection/Apprehension.

In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University. In 2007 and 2008 he was granted the opportunity to address the Northeast Association of Criminal Justice Sciences, during their annual conference at Roger William’s University in Bristol (R.I.), concerning the unique search and seizure authority of conservation officers. When not working or going to school Tom enjoys hunting and fishing near his home in south central Pennsylvania and spending time with his wife Amy, daughters Paige and Johanna, and son Ben.





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