Ready to Rescue
Aug 27, 2014 at 2:44 PM
The bay and lake are deserted areas as ice forms in the freezing temperatures this month.
But that doesn’t mean local departments aren’t thinking about being prepared to patrol the waters a few months from now, as grant deadlines for next season near and they round up their statistics from the previous boater season.
With 6,800 registered boats in Ottawa County and 6,400 in Erie County, police and firefighters often fill dual roles on the job, adding boat captain to their titles in the busy season.
Many of the marine patrol programs are funded through state grants, facilitated by the Ohio Department of Natural Resources and Homeland Security.
Lake Erie’s unique position as an international border also draws federal presence on the water through the U.S. Coast Guard and U.S. Customs Enforcement and Border Patrol efforts.
Manpower and funding dictate how often, where, and who has the opportunity to prioritize marine safety and border security into their daily police activities.
The Ottawa County Sheriff’s Office and the Port Clinton Police Department utilize two sets of grants to enforce the rules of the water. “At the end of the year, it’s mind boggling” said Port Clinton police Officer Ellis Fuiava, coordinator for the department’s marine patrol.
With the boat traffic in the city’s jurisdiction, Fuiava says the department’s marine unit is necessary.
Years ago, when the costs exceeded the city’s budget, administrators started searching for alternatives and found state and federal grants to operate.
“It wouldn’t be in the budget otherwise,” Fuiava said. “If you take Homeland and ODNR money away, there’s no way we can operate, let alone two boats”
Through state money, officers in all local departments focus on enforcing state laws and conducting boat safety inspections, as well as responding to emergency calls.
Through federal funds, departments skim the northern border in their jurisdiction, checking passports of boaters coming over the line.
Officers from the Erie County Sheriff’s Office and Huron and Sandusky police departments cooperate on a federal Northern Border Initiative grant to patrol the waters from the Ottawa County to the Lorain County lines, Capt. Steve Westcott of the Erie County Sheriff’s Office said.
Combining manpower is the most effective way to utilize the grant, Sandusky police Chief John Orzech said.
“There was always issues, people concerned with duplication of services,” he said. “It’s easier for us, too. We supply one officer when they do the trips, instead of having two or three out”
Having properly trained personnel can be a barrier to having a marine patrol.
Cost effectiveness, too, was a factor in Kelleys Island police deciding to defer water calls to the Coast Guard and ODNR, as funding for operation costs dwindled, Kelleys Island police Chief Ron Ehrbar said.
“The village can’t afford to do that,” he said.
Fire departments, too, are always prepared for water rescues — in the sizzling summer months or in freezing winter temperatures.
Almost every department with shoreline in their jurisdiction has at least one rescue watercraft to help boaters in distress.
Their boats don’t see the open water as often as those run by police agencies, making operations costs minimal.
But officials say they’re a necessary part of serving Erie and Ottawa county taxpayers who might find themselves in distress.
Many rely on the U.S. Coast Guard in Marblehead for aid, but local first responders, also are prepared to answer rescue calls.
Volunteer Port Clinton firefighters each are trained in water rescue tactics, an essential certification considering their calls to both Lake Erie, the Portage River and the Sandusky Bay.
The department’s inflatable rescue boat is trailered at all times, making it easier and faster to access any point in the water where help might be needed, Port Clinton fire Chief Kent Johnson said.
“It’s ready to go in year-round,” he said. “We can be in the river, lake or the bay in a matter of a few minutes”
Local fire departments purchase their watercraft through donations, municipal budgets or fundraisers through supporting organizations.
“They’re not an everyday use, but it sure is nice when you need it” Johnson said.
During the April 2013 search for two kayakers who went missing out of Crystal Rock after heading for the Edison Bridge, every local department with a boat was out on the water in coordinated searches as weather permitted during the windy spring.
That included Port Clinton, Margaretta, Sandusky and Huron, as well as the Coast Guard and the Ohio Division of Watercraft.
Fire departments’ rescue boats also serve as an additional firefighting vessel when watercraft catch fire.
The 12 marinas in Sandusky’s jurisdiction speak for themselves.
“There’s considerable risk along our waterfront,” Sandusky fire Chief Paul Ricci said. “We work in concert with the Coast Guard and we do stay busy”
During the boating season, the department’s fire rescue boat is docked at the city marina along Shoreline Drive, for easy access for firefighters stationed a few blocks away on Market Street to plunge right into the bay for rescue calls.