Police department working to keep Barnett Reservoir safe for all users
The Ross Barnett Reservoir offers a lot of options for summer fun. However, many don’t notice the people behind the scenes who make these activities safe for all visitors to each of the 48 recreational facilities.
More than 2.5 million people visit the reservoir annually. The area boasts five campgrounds, 16 parks, 22 boat launches, three handicapped-accessible trails, two multi-purpose trails and a mountain bike trail, in addition to the 33,000-acre lake.
The Reservoir Police Department works in the background, ensuring the area is safe. Reservoir Police Chief Perry Waggener said the department has a 24-hour presence. Every summer, especially on Independence Day, the officers are out in full force.
“It depends on the time of year as to how many officers are on duty at a time,” Waggener said. “We have three traditionally high-volume boating holidays in the year. We have Memorial Day, Labor Day and Fourth of July. On those days, all officers work. There’s just no off time.” This year, 17 officers were on patrol during the Fourth of July festivities.
“All of our parks are full during those holidays, and we have a high volume of boat traffic,” he said. “Just because of the sheer volume, we want to have the coverage. We do have a few more incidents. It’s mostly just because of the increase in people.”
More people could mean more safety citations or citations for boating under the influence (BUI).
“Each year, we hope we go through without a drowning, but unfortunately it happens,” Waggener said. “We like to, at times of high volume, have enough officers that we can offer the best response possible.”
One way the department works toward that, is with a command center posted at each park during the Independence Day activities.
The command centers give the officers a space to run surveillance; treat minor injuries; cool off; and an area to get their bearings and formulate a plan, in the event that something happens.
Waggener, who has served as police chief since 2006, said the reservoir police is like any other police department.
“We have the same statutory requirements of reporting to the state regarding our personnel, events and cases,” he said. “The officers have a mix of municipal policing, conservation officers and marine resources.”
All officers are cross-trained between regular road patrol and marine patrol. “This time of year, we will rotate through the marine division so they can, at any given time, feel comfortable if they have to operate a boat for a call,” he said. “We end up having to go out when people don’t want to go out, such as during storms and other events, to help people who have become stranded or are otherwise in peril. And it’s important to me that all of the officers feel comfortable operating our vessels in whatever type situation they need to.”
Several years ago, a reserve unit was established comprised of part-time non-paid officers. The unit assists especially during holidays. Waggener recalls a Fourth of July when the water was particularly rough. “It wasn’t raining or really high winds, just rough water,” he said. It was late in the evening, and most of the officers were starting to head back to the station.
“We got a call about a boat sinking right in front of the spillway,” he said. “Their engine had failed, and with the high swells, water was coming up over the sides and back. We were all able to scramble and get out there.”
A family of five was on the boat, but no one was hurt.
Another evening when a late-night storm rolled in, Waggener said a large boat called the Semper Fi went up on some rocks, a pontoon boat flipped and another boat began taking in water all at the same time.
“The reason most people know about (Semper Fi) is because it stayed there for about eight months,” Waggener said. “That was another night we had a storm come in late. Again, no one was hurt. No significant injuries.”
“The only casualty, and it wasn’t actually a casualty, but on the pontoon boat that flipped, there were three people and two dogs,” he added. “One of the dogs was lost, but it was found the next day on the shoreline right by where the boat went in.”
Not all rescues are successful.
“And there’s unfortunately recoveries,” he said.
Some officers are also certified divers.
While the Reservoir Police Department does not have a dive team, they do work with other dive teams in the area when needed.
“Diving has pretty much become the standard in body recovery,” Waggener said. “When I started in the ‘80s, if you wanted to recover a body, you used a drag. The diving method is a lot more humane. It’s friendlier to the body.”
During his career, Waggener has seen the implementation of side image and sonar.
“Those specifically have cut the recovery time dramatically,” he said. “It enables you to see the bottom, and in many cases, you can clearly see the body. We can actually find it with the sonar and know where it is and put a diver in right there.”
A long search wears on the officers and the families, according to Waggener.
“It’s a very trying time,” he said. “The onset of the sonar has been awesome for search and rescue, more specifically recovery.”
The Mississippi Department of Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks has a similar sonar system as well. Together, both agencies have done joint training with the manufacturer.
“Additionally, we have some very good dive teams around here,” Waggener said.
Most of them are from local fire departments.
“We are truly fortunate that we have such good resources so close to us, because they can deploy quickly,” he said. “Case in point, two weeks ago we had a missing person reported around 9 p.m. The call came in around 8:40 p.m. and the body was recovered by 11:30 p.m.”
“It used to be, if something like that happened, you had to wait until the next morning to go out and search,” Waggener said.
Law enforcement has regular patrols on the water just like they do on land.
“We have an officer assigned to a boat daily this time of year,” he said. “Usually there’s two boats, one up river one down river.” He said they are fortunate to have partners for enforcement on the lake, especially wildlife conservation officers.
“A lot of times on the weekends they will handle one end of the lake, and we will handle the other,” he said.
A common practice is to do safety checks before people unload their boats. This prevents people from even getting on the water without the required safety measures.
Anyone driving a boat is required to have boater registration. Anyone 12 and under is required to be wearing a life vest, a U.S. Coast Guard approved personal floatation device. A U.S. Coast Guard approved personal floatation devices for every person has to be on board.
“Anyone operating a personal water craft, regardless of age, must be wearing a personal floatation device,” Waggener said. “It doesn’t matter how old you are like it does inside the boat.”
“There are many safety regulations that keep people safe,” Waggener said.
He said in addition to safety checks, the officers also do checks for intoxication.
“There is not a prohibition against having alcohol in your boat,” he said. “There is a prohibition against being intoxicated while operating a boat. The same standard for vehicles applies to boats. We, as well as Wildlife, Fisheries and Parks, do make arrests for that. We commonly have our mobile command center on the river this time of year that has an instrument in it for that.”
In addition to that, glass bottles are banned anywhere in the parks or on the water.
As for those planning to spend time out on the Reservoir, Waggener has some advice.
“Have a good time, just don’t operate your boats under the influence,” he said. “Have a designated boat operator, a confident boat operator.”
He also encourages everyone on the boat to wear a life vest, regardless if its required or not.
“Nobody plans to have an accident,” he added. “Nobody says, ‘I’m going to have a wreck today so I’m going to wear my life vest today. You never know when it’s going to happen, so having it on could literally save your life.’”
Last but not least, Waggener said just a bit of courtesy on the water can go a long way.