In 2008, major flooding wreaked havoc in the Midwest.
"Since 1993, we haven't had that kind of flooding," recalls Missouri State Water Patrol (MSWP) Sgt. Gerald Jerry Callahan. On March 16 flash flooding began through the smaller streams and lasted through April. In June, the Mississippi and Missouri came out of their banks. "By the end of July, we had 9 inches of rain," recalls Callahan. "Mark Twain Lake was at its highest level. We got a lot of calls for rescue and evacuations."
During this time officers trained and equipped in marine patrol came into view. Agencies like the MSWP prove they are invaluable not only during natural disasters, but also on a daily basis, as they strive to keep water areas safe. Other agencies like the United States Coast Guard and the Oregon State Marine Board (OSMB) assist in this mission as well.
Missouri State Water Patrol
Created in 1959 as the Missouri State Boat Commission, MSWP officers had no law enforcement status. The nine original officers were neither certified nor armed. Celebrating their Golden Anniversary in 2009, MSWP now boasts 97 law enforcement-certified, uniformed officers. Although the officers have statewide jurisdiction, they predominately stay within their "original jurisdiction," the water. MSWP patrols over 272,770 acres of lakes, 5,500 miles of shorelines, 519 miles of the Mississippi River and 533 miles of the Missouri River. It also patrols major reservoirs and countless smaller tributaries and float streams.
MSWP officers handle additional duties; a dive team performs underwater recovery of drown victims and searches for evidence. Callahan calls them the "official homeland security team for the state of Missouri." Local counties use the unit for criminal evidence dives. MSWP also has a K-9 unit and an accident reconstruction team. "Our department is divided into six sections throughout the state," Callahan explains. "Each district has someone who is a criminal investigator who has gone through extra training."
Becoming water patrol
MSWP officers attend a paid, six-month-long stint at the academy, where they attend basic law enforcement classes including defensive tactics, constitutional law, emergency operations and vessel stops and searches. In addition, officers need 60 hours of post training a year. MSWP selects candidates who can deal well with the public and work well independently. "Our officers work on their own quite a bit and are more isolated because of where they work," says Callahan. "In a lot of areas you are the only one out there."
In part due to exemplary candidates and training, in the last three years two MSWP officers received awards from the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA). In 2006, Water Patrol Corporal Elizabeth Ratliff became NASBLA's sole Officer of the Year recipient and the first in her agency to be honored with the title. She is also the first female to be given the award. Following her, Water Patrol Officer Frederick Guthrie Jr. received the NASBLA 2008 State Boating Officer of the Year award.
Along with keeping waterways safe through patrol, MSWP officers conduct education and advocacy. "Every officer does boating safety classes," says Callahan. "We offer them at the schools and community centers. Our officers spend a lot of time teaching classes in the off season and we're trying to offer them in the summer. We come to safety fairs and go to schools to do one-hour presentations."
Boats for all waterways
"Our officers are some of the most expensive state employees," says Callahan. Each officer has at least one boat, sometimes more. Each officer also has a truck to pull the boats with. "For certain bodies of water, we've been forced to increase the size of our patrol vessels due to safety," says Callahan. "There was a time when our boats were too small on some lakes to get the job done."