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Oklahoma Lake Patrol: MISSION IS SAFETY


O By Charles W. Sasser


klahoma Highway Patrol Trooper Larry Norman skims his pow- erful patrol boat across the choppy waters of Fort Gibson Lake in eastern Oklahoma. The trooper is on a mission to save lives, enforce the law and educate boaters on the safe operation of watercraft on the state’s lakes and streams. Days ago, he responded to an emergency on nearby Oologah Lake where a boat sank. Its operator wore a fl otation device, but he still ended up in the hospital suffering from hypothermia. Landlocked Oklahoma enjoys more miles of shoreline than the Gulf and Atlantic coasts combined, a lake lover’s paradise with plenty of uncrowded waters. However, according to Capt. Victor Lee, commander of Troop W, OHP’s Marine Enforcement Section, there is a dark side to the abundant recreational waters. Oklahoma ranks 13th among the states in alcohol-related boating acci-


dents, which kill about 500 people each year throughout the nation. Oklahoma lake fatalities average 25 to 27 yearly, many of which are the result of alcohol or poor decisions. “We want people to enjoy the lakes,” Lee emphasizes, “but we don’t want their lives ruined because of bad judgment.” The OHP, which fi elds more than 800 troopers, includes several special service branches. Troop W, the Marine Enforcement Section, currently uti- lizes 36 uniformed personnel working the state’s waterways, fi ve lieutenant supervisors, and the unit’s director, Lee. It covers the entire state through fi ve districts. The unit came into existence in 1971 when the Oklahoma Legislature recognized the need for a branch of law enforcement to police the state’s lakes and streams. Initially, the “Lake Patrol” was a separate division of the Department of Public Safety. In 1998, it merged with OHP as the “Marine Enforcement Section.” Informally, it is still known as Lake Patrol, with ju- risdiction over 38 state lakes and recreational areas, 4,385 miles of shoreline, 490,215 surface acres of water, and an additional 165,600 miles of rivers and tributaries.


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Not included are waterways controlled by city, county and other law enforcement agencies. One example is the Grand River Dam Authority on Grand Lake in northeastern Oklahoma. Brian Edwards, chief of GRDA’s Lake Operations and Law Enforcement, heads an agency larger than the OHP Marine Section with jurisdiction in 24 counties. Troop W’s director, Lee, recommends a minimum of fi ve years’ road ex- perience before a trooper applies for Marine Enforcement. All academy recruits, however, attend a water familiarization course as part of their 20- week training program.


“Get comfortable in the water,” Trooper Mark Cranford, OHP training coordinator, tells student-cadets during familiarization classes at Edmond’s YMCA Aquatic Center. “Don’t panic or you will die. Water can be relent- less, unforgiving.” Cadet Matthew Krupezyk, 25, migrated from New York to join the


Oklahoma Highway Patrol because of OHP’s reputation as one of the na- tion’s best law enforcement agencies. He grew up on an island in the Niagara River and wants to become a Marine Enforcement member as soon as he becomes eligible.


“I look at being a trooper as a calling,” he explains. “First a trooper, then a marine trooper.” The WET (Water Enforcement Training) course for new marine troopers includes treading water with full fi eld uniform, including ballistic vests and duty weapon; drawing a weapon while treading; protecting a victim in the water from an aggressor; and in-water fi ghting. Only one OHP Lake Patrol offi cer has died in the line of duty. Mark Harris was killed in 1984 from a vehicular assault. Troop W’s duties are basically the same as road troopers’, only on the


water. Lake patrolmen investigate thefts; enforce water traffi c laws, including OUI (operating under the infl uence); handle accidents, natural disasters, search and rescue; conduct drowning recoveries; do boat safety inspections; provide boat safety courses; assist local law enforcement; and respond to crimes that occur on or near waterways. Trooper Norman sees his priority as “educating people and ensuring their safety. My most dreaded experience is the drowning of a child.”


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