Stay safe on the water this summer
PFBC Waterways Conservation Office Rachael Thurner-Diaz provides boating safety advice May 12, 2022, at Pinchot Gifford State Park.
Brian Whipkey, Erie Times-News
Pennsylvania’s law enforcement officer of the year wants to help boaters and anglers have their best days on the water.
Waterways Conservation Officer Mark Sweppenhiser has been named the 2021 Boating Law Enforcement Officer of the Year for Pennsylvania by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators.
“It’s a great recognition of all the hard work that everyone does across the state and it’s a great privilege to be recognized as a servant of the public here for the great agency of the Fish and Boat Commission,” he said in a telephone interview.
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Sweppenhiser, 46, has worked 22 years for the Pennsylvania Fish and Boat Commission in the southeastern part of Pennsylvania. “I worked from Lancaster all the way to Philadelphia for a period of time,” he said before being assigned to Dauphin and Northumberland counties where he’s worked most of his career.
During 2021, Sweppenhiser logged 538 hours of recreational boating law enforcement including 24 shifts aboard patrol boats. While on patrol, Sweppenhiser initiated 323 vessel boardings resulting in 62 criminal summary citations and 477 warnings. While participating in proactive Boating Under the Influence (BUI) enforcement, including during NASBLA’s annual Operation Dry Water detail throughout Independence Day weekend, Sweppenhiser arrested one watercraft operator for BUI and assisted fellow officers with three BUI arrests. Sweppenhiser investigated one recreational boating accident and assisted with two investigations in neighboring districts.
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In law enforcement, he enjoys the challenge. “It’s so diverse and it’s such a unique opportunity to go out and do something. Boating is just like traffic control in some ways, in that every day that someone goes out on the water there’s an opportunity for a mishap. And you’re out there to make sure there’s a success story for that boating adventurer.”
His district includes the Susquehanna River and lower Juniata River. He believes his role is to create a safe place for people to go out and enjoy themselves on or along the waterways.
He strives to make sure boaters know how to stay safe while boating.
“Our boating public in general is really conscientious, but there are some folks who see boating as just another way of getting around. Boating is unique just like airplanes or vehicles on the road. There’s a unique set of standards people must follow.”
Some of the problems he’s discovered happen when there’s drug or alcohol use or people are being inconsiderate of other boaters on the water.
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He likes to talk to boaters about how to be safe on the water and the proper handling of watercraft.
If people are informed about what could happen while boating, they may not become stranded or drown. He said the agency’s staff has had to help rescue boaters over the years as well as pull people out of the water. For example, if a boat on a moving body of water has motor trouble and they don’t have an anchor, they are floating at the mercy of the current.
The water can be dangerous and people have died in boating mishaps. “One of the worst things about law enforcement is family notifications when something happens. Our job is to keep the public safe.”
How to be safe
Sweppenhiser also likes spending time in schools talking about fishing and boating. As part of education efforts within his district in 2021, Sweppenhiser instructed two public boating safety education courses. Five outreach programs conducted within local schools included education about boating, paddling, water safety, and the importance of wearing a life jacket.
“Wearing a life jacket is the most paramount thing you can do when you’re on the water,” he said adding that there are additional regulations over the winter months to require anglers and waterfowl hunters to wear life jackets when the water is colder than in summer. He said it’s important to have a life jacket that fits your body size. Young children and adults need different jackets that fit them properly to keep them afloat and able to breathe while in the water.
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Another concern is people overloading their boat with gear which leads to trouble keeping the boat afloat.
Boating has become more affordable for people than in the past. People can get a basic kayak or canoe and be on the water for a small financial investment. “You can go out on a rain swollen river and get yourself in massive trouble real quick and not have any clue on what safety gear you needed or where you should have pulled out or what float plan you should have had in place.”
He advises new boaters to join a club or spend time with a seasoned boater to learn the proper way to boat and stay out of trouble.
Why he likes his job
“I had an interest in outdoors and conservation and doing things for the public. I always enjoyed public service, making our communities better. Just making the quality of life better for everyone,” he said about his career choice.
He enjoys meeting with people while stocking trout and watching them catch fish. “Seeing that spark in someone’s eyes about what nature means and what part they play in that conservation, that event, that recreational opportunity that they are experiencing and seeing the joy from this low-cost activity.”
The opening day of trout season each spring is always something he enjoys. The excitement that comes from catching fish creates special memories for families and friends.
Choosing a career
“I knew I had some interest, and I have a variety of interests and I knew I never would have been satisfied sitting in an office checking boxes or simply writing. I enjoy being outside and enjoy interacting with people. I enjoy challenges. I enjoy the unexpected. That is very much the life of a conservation officer. Life is when I leave the door (each morning), I don’t know how the day is going to unfold.”
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For young people thinking about their future career, Sweppenhiser said, “The opportunities are there for the best. If people want to get into this career field and they want to make a difference in conservation and in people’s lives and in their own life, then this is the career for them to take a look at. If you are interested in diversity, you’re interested in challenges, and you’re interested in just making a difference, law enforcement is the place for them.”
The agency reports Waterways Conservation Officers are police officers certified by the PA State Police Municipal Police Officers Training Standards. They are employed by the PFBC and specially trained in all aspects of fisheries conservation and watercraft safety. Waterways Conservation Officers primarily enforce fishing, boating and environmental laws and regulations. Patrols are primarily accomplished on foot and in vehicles and boats. Waterways Conservation Officers are also certified boating safety instructors.
The PFBC is accepting applications for Waterways Conservation Officer Trainees. Application information can be found on the Civil Service Employment website,https://www.employment.pa.gov/Pages/jobopportunities.aspx.
Brian Whipkey is the outdoors columnist for USA TODAY Network sites in Pennsylvania. Contact him at [email protected] and sign up for our weekly Go Outdoors PA newsletter email on your website’s homepage under your login name. Follow him on Facebook @whipkeyoutdoors.