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Boaters up, seasonal deputies down

by BILL BULEY
Staff Writer | June 1, 2023 1:09 AM

COEUR d’ALENE — In May 2022, the Kootenai County Sheriff’s Office did not cite a single boater for operating a watercraft under the influence of alcohol.

As of press time on the last day of May 2023, at least six had already been cited.

“With what we just saw in May, we’re expecting to see a lot more,” said KCSO Sgt. Ryan Miller, recreation safety supervisor.

The marine patrol is gearing up for another busy season on the water, but it will only have half the personnel wanted.

“I’d love to have six teams on, seven days a week. I just don’t have the staffing for it,” Miller said, cruising Wednesday on Lake Coeur d’Alene.

The county hired six seasonal marine deputies who will be supervised by a full-time marine deputy. Three of those will leave in August to attend the police academy.

Miller had hoped to hire 12 seasonal deputies to patrol the lake, Spokane River, Hayden Lake and other area waters.

But, with only three, one must handle Lake Coeur d’Alene, one the Spokane River and one will rove between Hayden and the western lakes.

Units will be on the water Thursday through Monday until Labor Day weekend. Tuesdays are call-out days and Wednesdays it's just Miller.

With fewer patrols, officers are forced to be more reactive and, ultimately, less proactive.

“I’m hoping we can still get out there and prevent a lot of activities or unsafe actions so our dive and sonar teams aren’t busy this season,” Miller said.

To maintain presence, he’s planning overtime shifts.

“That’s going to cost a lot more mone,y but we need the coverage,” Miller said.

Miller believes the shortage of seasonal deputies can be linked to pay.

KCSO used to receive between 50 to 100 applicants every year. This year, it got about 10.

While compensation has climbed from $14 an hour several years ago to the current $20 an hour — with plans for $23 per in 2024 — it's not enough.

Miller said there are other local jobs that pay close to what KCSO offers seasonal deputies and are on land, easier and less stressful.

It is also a lengthy process to become a seasonal marine deputy.

Applicants must pass written and physical tests and undergo interviews and background checks and receive roughly four weeks of training, including a two-week academy.

“They have to be the experts out there,” Miller said.

It prepares them for the situations they will face this summer, such as boaters who range from belligerent to cooperative to friendly.

Some have been drinking and some have been drinking too much.

While it’s legal for a boat operator to have a beer in hand, they can’t have a blood alcohol content above .08.

Idaho had 77 boating accidents and five boating fatalities in 2020, according to U.S. Department of Homeland Security statistics.

The U.S. Coast Guard reported there were 636 boating fatalities nationwide in 2022, a 3.3 percent decrease from 658 deaths in 2021.

Alcohol continued to be a contributing factor in fatal boating accidents in 2022, accounting for 88 deaths, or 16 percent of total fatalities, according to the Coast Guard.

As a diver, Miller has seen the consequences of overdrinking while boating. A few summers ago, he saw three fatalities on local waters.

Miller said seasonal deputies will have their hands full this summer.

They will make some 20,000 contacts and 5,000 traffic stops, but only 7%, about 400, will be cited.

They might simply shout at a boater to correct or stop doing something. It depends on the infraction and the situation.

They can visually check registration and watch for other unsafe acts, such as skiing without a lifejacket.

Idaho is one of six states that does not require boater safety classes, though the county does offer them.

“We are educating people," Miller said. "Education is always our goal."

It’s not just Idahoans using local waters. It’s Montanans, Washingtonians and Canadians.

Kootenai County has more than 20,000 registered boats, 20 lakes, 44,000 navigable acres and about 50 miles of rivers.

The county has about 20 boat launches which are all pretty much full, Miller said.

“We know we’re getting busier,” Miller said. “We're seeing it on the water.”

For the most part, boaters are respectful.

Some complain the marine patrol is doing too much. Others say not enough.

Miller, who grew up in Florida, is a boat owner. He practices what he preaches.

"I love the water. I love keeping the water safe. That is the biggest thing to me,” he said.

Miller wants boaters to enjoy their time on the water.

“Truly, we’re out here to make sure everyone does have fun, but in a safe manner," he said.

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BILL BULEY/Press

A boat glides past a Kootenai County Sheriff's Office marine patrol unit on the Spokane River on Wednesday.

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BILL BULEY/Press

The view out the front windows of the Kootenai County Sheriff's Office marine patrol unit on Lake Coeur d'Alene on Wednesday.