Keeping water safety a high priority

Corps employees complete annual boat safety training at Dworshak Reservoir

Published June 16, 2021
Two men, one with clipboard, one with rope tied around a pole.

Paul Pence overseeing the knot-tying portion of the training. This was one of the on-shore components of the training before the students hit the water.

Boating season is upon us, and more people are taking the opportunity for fun and leisure out on the water. The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers, Walla Walla District knows that the need for vigilance and safety on the water is imperative.

The Walla Walla District rangers who patrol the water and shore go through rigorous training at the Dworshak project to guard against potential mishaps in recreational boating.

Nathan Seibert, a natural resource specialist, is training to become the Walla Walla District’s Motorboat Coordinator. For Nathan, this training ensures everyone taking the course is proficient in their understanding of operating procedures.

“It’s important because as a government agency, we are leaders of water-based recreation. Keeping that in mind, it’s paramount that we know what we’re doing when we’re out here. We set the standard on the water for the people who are recreating in our areas. It’s essential we have the means to keep the public safe as well as having the means to keep our people safe out on the water,” Seibert said.

The course for first-time students is 24 hours long. It is a combination of boating operations, trailer maneuvers, and classroom instruction. The mornings consist of classroom time, and after lunch, they commence knot tying and boat trailer movements. The students come from various backgrounds within the Corps. Areas of profession range from natural resource management, such as park rangers, to wildlife biologists, and park managers, as well as wage grade crews who drive boats up and down the river for multiple operations.  These crews inspect headgates and sometimes place temporary stop logs during daily operations.

The course takes place on an annual basis. Students attend an eight-hour refresher course on the first day of the week and then a 24-hour course the rest of the week The refresher course, which is required every five years, is for previous graduates, who already have years of operating on the water under their belt.

“The goal is to teach people who may have not operated boats of this kind or size. The Corps runs fairly large boats, as opposed to your standard fishing boat,” Brandon Frazier, park ranger and natural resource specialist at McNary project said. “We emphasize making sure everyone is doing the task safely.

These boats are bigger and different to handle, so you need bigger trucks when pulling our boats in a trailer. Part of our task is to teach people to drive and maneuver trailers with these boats comfortably.”

Frazier is one of the instructors for land vehicle operations who take students through obstacle courses with a truck and boat trailer.

“We go through an obstacle course with the trucks; then we have them maneuvering around cones, with the trailer attached. They can see the trailer in the rearview mirror, how close it comes to the cones, how far away they will have to turn – those cones could someday be somebody’s truck – then we have them back them into parking spots.

“After that we make them launch the boat, then retrieve the boat. We want to make sure they’re comfortable with those operations,” Frazier stated.

Once training on the shore is complete, boat operations begin. As part of the required certification, students become familiar with the vessels by going through the safety gear list.

“Every time we take the boat on the water, we go through to make sure we have enough oil, fuel, all of your safety preparedness items. We check the fire extinguisher, making sure all lights work, and ensure the radio is working so if there is an emergency, we are fully prepared for it,” Lauren Howard, a maintenance worker helper at the Lucky Peak Project Office, said.

Those operating on the water must prepare for the likelihood of operating a boat by themselves while staying safe.

“We are learning how to self-rescue. For instance, if we’re out on the lake working and we go overboard, we learn how to get back into the boat safely, especially if nobody’s there to help us,” Howard said.

Students receive training on the water and have an opportunity to drive a boat through the serpentine course giving them a feel for handling, speed, and obstacle avoidance.

“Everyone operating our boats in the district will likely come across debris sooner or later and this course will train you to get out of the way fast and teach people how to do it safely,” Frazier said.

The U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is one of the nation’s leading outdoor recreation providers, with over 400 lake and river projects in 43 states and more than 250 million visits per year. Of the many recreational opportunities available on Corps lands and waters, boating and swimming rank the highest. The Corps continually seeks more effective methods to keep visitors safe. Staff, outdoor recreation planners, safety specialists, and engineering staffs aggressively pursue park facility and beach designs that incorporate strong safety standards.

“I very much enjoy this, and I take pride in what I do, and I can only hope that the public sees that. We are ready to help our visitors out on the water. We are there to protect them and make sure that everyone is operating their vessel safely to keep other visitors safe,” Howard said.