published Saturday, May 31st, 2014

Sheriff's Marine Division ramping up to keep boaters safe

Hamilton County sheriff officers question two jet ski riders from one of the department's two Boston whaler boats on Dallas Bay on Friday at Chester Frost Park in Hamilton County. The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office will have officers patrolling the county's waterways, particularly on days of heavy boating traffic.
Hamilton County sheriff officers question two jet ski riders from one of the department's two Boston whaler boats on Dallas Bay on Friday at Chester Frost Park in Hamilton County. The Hamilton County Sheriff's Office will have officers patrolling the county's waterways, particularly on days of heavy boating traffic.
Photo by Doug Strickland.

Summer heat means more people out on the waterways, and the Hamilton County Sheriff's Office is preparing for the 2014 boating season.

"We know that unfortunately every year we always have folks who don't pay attention to what they need to when they're out on the water," Hamilton County Sheriff Jim Hammond said Friday at the Chester Frost Park boat ramp.

The sheriff wants the office's Marine Division "up to strength" to be available as a back-up in emergency situations for the 10-county region that make up the state Department of Homeland Security's District 3.

Nine sheriff's deputies have recently completed training for the boating season through the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency, which also held a media event on the lake Friday to remind boaters to obey the law and stay safe this summer.

"In the state of Tennessee, Wildlife is the ultimate authority on the water," said Sgt. Mark Williams, the sergeant over the sheriff's office Marine Division and the motor fleet. "They are allowed to commission other agencies to help them enforce the boating safety acts, and that's the colors we work under when we're on the water."

The main function of the sheriff's office Marine Division during the boating season will be to assist the TWRA in providing safety and protection on Hamilton County waters.

"Our primary goal out here is just boater safety," said Williams, who noted deputies will stop boats with large groups of people on them and conduct inspections, ensuring they have the proper safety equipment.

"We do look for impaired boaters out here, and drinking underage," Williams said. "But mainly it's just a public service to make sure everybody's being safe and responsible while they're out here on the water."

The specialized boating unit also will support the sheriff's office dive team.

"As part of the Homeland Security grant money that we get, and as part of our cooperation with TWRA, we're there to assist and back them up," Hammond said. "On cases that we're working from the criminal side, we do have other equipment, such as our underwater robot, if you will, that can detect weapons or cars or, in some cases, even unfortunately bodies that we're searching for."

The two boats -- a 20-foot boat and a 24-foot -- are Boston whalers, which are "technically unsinkable," Williams said.

The sheriff's office plans to have at least two deputies on each boat at all times, and the extra duties are not an increase to the department budget.

Both of those boats will be in the water for special events such as the upcoming Riverbend Festival, as well as on holidays, weekends and other days that may turn out to have large water traffic numbers.

Contact staff writer Alex Harris at aharris@timesfreepress.com or 423-757-6592.

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