News: Licensing course stretches the limits to increase safety
Story by Sara Goodeyon
TULSA, Okla. — Each year at this time the Tulsa District U.S. Army Corps of Engineers gears up for the busy recreation season at its 38 lakes. A part of that process includes a challenging boat operator training course to insure corps employees are prepared to keep themselves and the public safe.
Before any employee is allowed to operate a corps boat on their own, they must complete the week-long Motorboat Operators Licensing Course, which includes hands-on boating instruction and classroom instruction. Employees taking the course include park rangers, lock and dam maintenance workers, and biologists. The course was presented at Eufaula Lake, Oklahoma, June 4-8.
“The course is designed to stretch the limits of the boat and the operator, but in a safe and controlled manner under the guidance of an instructor,” said Gary Simmons, one of the 12 instructors who teach the course. “The bottom line is that we want our employees to go home safely after each shift, and the public to go home safely after their visit to the lake.”
“We teach professionalism and courtesy and how to operate the boat,” said instructor Stacy Dunkin. “We also teach them how to care for our equipment so that we get the full use of the equipment.”
It is imperative that the public trusts corps rangers and employees for professional and safe assistance. The boats must also be well maintained and well equipped so that visitors know their tax dollars are being used wisely.
“It saves government dollars in the long run by avoiding unnecessary maintenance, early breakdown repair or replacement of equipment, and legal fees,” said Simmons. “It is also a more efficient use of our labor because a trained operator can reduce the time needed for certain tasks.”
Trainees receive hours of hands-on training on a variety of boats with the certified instructor by their side. The students experience how a boat can “act” with a different size motor, or how a larger boat requires the operator to make changes and corrections, and to anticipate turns and the speed well in advance of the maneuver.
“We use several different models of boats for the training because each boat has its own personality,” said Dunkin. “The trainees learn that these boats can do a lot of maneuvers that most boats can’t. They are designed to be highly maneuverable. It builds their confidence because we take them out and show them what the boat can do.”
The trainees learn fine skill operation at low speeds for things such as a slow controlled approach to come alongside another boat or structure, close-quarter maneuvering, and docking. They also learn high speed skills on the serpentine course, the slalom course and avoidance maneuvers.
“The avoidance maneuver is very important to master because the operator may find that they must avoid debris, or even a person in the water,” said Dunkin. “In an avoidance situation, most people would turn from the object and then cut the throttle, but that would cause the boat to actually run over the object. Without the throttle, the boat loses its steering. We teach students to complete the turn and then cut the throttle.”
Other training includes towing, trailering a boat, backing, checklists for safe operation, and fire suppression to douse a gasoline or diesel fire. Students must also complete a Coast Guard and National Association of State Boating Law Administrators approved online course, a 100 yard swim with and without a lifejacket, one day of classroom instruction and pass a written exam.
The Tulsa District boat operator’s course has been a model for other such courses within the corps, and some other districts have training teams, while those that don’t send students to take the Tulsa course. Once a student successfully completes the course they are required to take a refresher course every 5 years.