Florida's 'transition' one year later

Melding two resources agencies shows positive resultsTALLAHASSEE, Fla. -- Agency mergers are sometimes the stuff from which nightmares are made, but at other times, as in the state of Florida, combining the state's Game and Fresh Water Fish Commission with the Marine Fisheries Commission and Florida Marine Patrol, you strike paydirt.In the 12 months since both agencies combined to become the Fish & Wildlife Conservation Commission, all indications are that this new "super-agency's" Law Enforcement Division is meeting its goal of becoming one of the country's best. In a recent progress report, FWC Executive Director Allan Egbert, Ph.D., noted that: "Colonel Robert L. Edwards and his staff have been working diligently to overcome any obstacles involved in creating one of the best fish and wildlife law enforcement entities in the country."When Florida voters approved a constitutional amendment in 1998 to merge the two agencies starting July 1, 1999, nobody suggested it would be a snap transition. Despite similarities in agency oper- ations and philosophies, there were basic differences to address. One agency dealt with game and freshwater resources while the other concentrated on the saltwater. They had separate radio systems and wore different uniforms. But no obstacle seemed too awesome for the new agency, and here are just some of the tasks that have been accomplished, according to the progress report:* High-band VHF radios are being installed in former Marine Patrol vehicles, allowing communication among officers and inland dispatch centers.* All commissioned officers are being cross-trained at this time.* The Aviation section has been reorganized under a central command to improve aviation support effectiveness and efficiency.* In support of the Division's boating safety initiatives, the boating safety section conducted an evaluation of the mandatory boater education program, resulting in the elimination of the $2 administrative fee for processing boater education ID cards. This produced a direct savings to the public. Revenues from fines against boating law violators will now be used to cover costs associated with issuing the cards.* Officers have conducted joint resource protection and boating safety enforcement details.Commission structure Florida's commission will eventually be pared to seven members. Ninecommissioners currently serve, the result of combining the two previouscommissions. The number will be reduced through attrition as presentcommissioners terms expire.Appointed at large by the governor for five-year terms, the currentcommission consists of Chair Julie K. Morris from Sarasota, James L. Adams, Jr. of Bushnell, Barbara C. Barsh of Jacksonville, Quinton L. Hedgepeth, D.D.S. of Miami, H.A. "Herky" Huffman from Enterprise, David M. Meehan of St. Petersburg, Tony Moss from Biscayne Park, Edwin P. Roberts, D.C. of Pensacola, and John D. Rood of Jacksonville. All have backgrounds in the outdoors, including fishing, hunting and various types of boating. Under the merger statute, commissioners are appointed for staggered terms.The commission has authority for setting all hunting and fishing regulations, including both freshwater and saltwater fisheries. Boating laws are set by the State Legislature, however.Huge responsibilitiesWhile the FWC has combined enforcement officers from the two previousagencies into a single division, the 673 commissioned officers still havetheir work cut out.Here's a breakdown provided by Boating Law Administrators Capt. PaulOuellette and Capt. Jim Brown that puts the situation in perspective.The Division of Law Enforcement is responsible for patrolling 11,909 miles of freshwater rivers and streams, 8,426 miles of tidal coastline, 2,400 square miles of saltwater bays, sounds and estuaries, another 13,200 square miles of offshore waters and 4, 442 square miles of lakes and ponds. That breaks down to 17.7 miles of rivers and streams, 12.5 miles ofcoastline, 23.2 square miles of bays, sounds, estuaries and off shore waters and 6.6 square miles of lakes and ponds for each officer to patrol. And that doesn't include the 54,136 square miles of land (80 square miles apiece) for which each officer is responsible.Not to be overwhelmed, the division under Col. Edwards' guidance is looking at ways to become even more efficient. Several priorities have been set, among them* Review seasonal boating and resource enforcement issues to developstrategies that maximize enforcement coverage.* Establish tactical and strategic operational plans to maximize resourceprotection and boating safety enforcement effectiveness.* Develop and implement an improved citizen complaint system that prioritizes complaints and identifies appropriate responses.* Review and evaluate command staff allocations based on geographic boundaries.* Evaluate and reorganize headquarters staff to ensure efficient utilization of personnel. High on the priority list is boating safety, and Ouellette provided SmallCraft Advisory with a sample of magazine advertisements it is running that stress boating safety for youngsters, taking a boating safety course, and the perils of drinking and boating.Also, the Division will continue to replace patrol boats when necessary, and is also developing cooperative agreements with the U.S. Coast Guard and Auxiliary and United States Power Squadrons relating to boater education.Plans call for increasing the availability of Florida's eight-hour safeboating course, too.# # #This story originally appeared in the June/July 2000 issue of "Small Craft Advisory," a publication of the National Assn. of State Boating Law Administrators.

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