JUNE 21, 2023: The Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) Division of Law Enforcement consists of 860 sworn personnel who operate in six regions throughout the state. FWC officers are responsible for uniformed patrol and investigative law enforcement services on more than 8,400 miles of coastline, 13,200 square miles of offshore waters and innumerable rivers, lakes, and streams throughout the state.
With more than one million registered recreational vessels, Florida is recognized as the “Boating Capital of the World.” With that distinction, the Florida Fish and Wildlife Conservation Commission (FWC) and law enforcement partners statewide have an important responsibility to keep the millions of visitors and residents who enjoy the state’s beautiful waterways safe.
“We had fewer boating incidents in Florida in 2022 than we did in 2021 but fatalities statewide were up,” said Col. Brian Smith, Director for the FWC Division of Law Enforcement. “I am proud of the effort our officers and boating and waterways staff put into getting boating safety messaging out to the public throughout the year and my hope is we will see both of these statistics decrease next year.”
The FWC uses National Safe Boating Week to kick off the summer boating season with an annual reminder for boaters to prioritize safety while enjoying recreational activities on Florida’s beautiful waterways. This annual education push focuses on key messages and provides opportunities for media ride-alongs, press conferences and important public outreach events.
Boating safety education emphasizes the importance of responsible behavior on the water. It educates boaters about the need to follow navigation rules, maintain a safe speed, and operate boats in a manner that does not endanger others. Additionally, it highlights the significance of respecting the marine environment, wildlife, and other boaters' rights. By promoting responsible behavior, education contributes to a safer and more enjoyable boating experience for everyone.
Enforcement is also key to maintaining safety on Florida's waterways. Boating while under the influence of alcohol or drugs can impair a person's judgment, coordination, and reaction time, increasing the risk of incidents, injuries, and fatalities. By enforcing BUI laws, the FWC aims to prevent boating incidents and protect the lives of boaters and other waterway users.
The FWC is the largest maritime law enforcement entity in the state, and the task set before it is a daunting one. As a result, the agency prioritizes officer training and involvement in BUI enforcement.
In the first six months of 2023, FWC officers conducted more than 170,000 hours of water patrol, with 88,557 hours classified as boating safety. More than 57,000 vessel inspections were conducted in those six months alone. More than 300 impaired operators have been removed from Florida waterways in the first half of 2023 for Boating Under the Influence. These results would not be possible without the energy and importance placed on BUI training and enforcement.
FWC officers had one main objective over the 2023 Memorial Day weekend: to keep boaters safe. Partnering with other law enforcement agencies, FWC officers were proactive in getting boating safety messaging out to the public before the weekend and were on the lookout for reckless or impaired vessel operators. Between May 27-29, FWC officers removed approximately 100 unsafe and impaired vessel operators across the state of Florida for boating under the influence and responded to over 30 boating incidents. There were zero fatalities reported during this time.
“I credit the visibility and the hard work of our officers and partner agencies educating the public, removing impaired boaters from behind the wheel and responding quickly to incidents. Nothing would make me happier than to report the number zero every year,” said Col. Smith. “Operating a vessel while impaired not only puts yourself and everyone on board in danger but also everyone else around you trying to enjoy a great weekend on the water.”
The FWC has 22 certified Drug Recognition Experts (DREs) who have completed a comprehensive certification for including prerequisite training in Standardized Field Sobriety Training (SFST) and Advanced Roadside Impaired Driving Enforcement (ARIDE). According to the Institute of Police Technology and Management (IPTM), only about 1.1% of all law enforcement officers in the United States are certified DREs.
The FWC boasts 420 certified Breath Test Operators (BTO), approximately half of all sworn officers. FWC recruits also receive this training while in the FWC academy, so all new officers are certified BTOs when they graduate. Along with BTOs, 14 Intoxilyzer inspectors across the state keep necessary equipment functioning and calibrated.
Continuous training takes place across the state to keep officers well versed and comfortable. Approximately 20 Standardized Field Sobriety Training and Boating Under the Influence refresher trainings take place annually throughout Florida, in addition to multiple Boating Under the Influence training events for local law enforcement agencies.
The FWC has a zero-tolerance approach to BUI enforcement. Publicizing the consequences of BUI, such as fines, license suspension, and potential criminal charges, discourages individuals from boating while intoxicated. Additionally, BUI enforcement efforts can raise awareness about the dangers of impaired boating, educating boaters about responsible behavior on the water and encouraging them to make informed decisions.
Impaired boaters are also impaired drivers, and the FWC works closely with Florida chapters of Mothers Against Drunk Driving, who have enthusiastically included boating under the influence in their outreach campaigns.
The FWC’s year-round efforts, but especially during Operation Dry Water, play a vital role in protecting lives, promoting safe boating practices, ensuring legal compliance, and fostering a culture of responsible behavior on the water. By actively addressing the issue of impaired boating, we aim to minimize incidents, injuries, and fatalities, enhancing the overall boating experience for residents and visitors alike.
The FWC has been involved with NASBLA’s Operation Dry Water (ODW) campaign since its inception in 2009 and will be promoting awareness and conducting heightened enforcement targeting BUI this year as well. Public safety announcements, press conferences, advertising and zero tolerance outreach, coupled with increased enforcement heightens awareness and increases public safety on the water. Law enforcement arrested 93 impaired operators last year in Florida during the national event.
In September 2022, the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) selected FWC Officer Specialist Nicole Basford as the 2022 Operation Dry Water Officer of the Year. Basford’s many accomplishments include 58 BUI/DUI cases, mentoring countless officers and investigators regarding BUI enforcement, training new officers and leading targeted BUI enforcement details. In addition to her patrol duties, Basford is a BUI instructor at the FWC Academy and teaches BUI curriculum in the Northwest Region and for partner agencies.
Alcohol is a leading contributing factor in recreational boating deaths, and a major contributor to incidents. In 2021, 32% of fatal incidents were related to alcohol or drug use while in 2022, 13% of all fatal incidents were related to alcohol or drug use.
“When boaters choose to operate while impaired, they are endangering not only themselves but their family, friends and other boaters on the water as well,” said Maj. Beaton, the Boating and Waterways section leader. “As FWC officers, it is our job to do all we can to ensure the safety of our recreational boaters and paddlers. That is why the FWC is joining other states and agencies across the country to do our part in keeping boaters safe and preventing incidents related to boating under the influence.”