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Multiagency boating accident investigation course trains officers at AZGFD headquarters

Posted December 13, 2017

Instructor Gary Haupt teaches students how to properly measure the angle of impact in a two-vessel collision.

A one-of-its-kind boating accident investigation course took place at Arizona Game and Fish Department (AZGFD) headquarters in Phoenix last week. The goal for the more than 30 watercraft officers attending from across the U.S. and Canada was to advance their skills in accident investigation through in-classroom instruction and hands-on examination of staged boating collisions.

These officers are responsible for investigating boat accidents for their respective agencies, and the course provides the unique opportunity to investigate a staged boating collision with the goal of determining the cause of the accident. The skills learned in the course are especially beneficial when investigating high-profile or multiple injury accidents and being able to explain what happened to a judge, jury or the family members of those affected.

The fluid environment that boating accidents occur in adds to the complexity of an investigation — evidence, or sometimes the boats, sinks or floats away and unlike in a vehicle accident, the boats do not remain static after the crash. In some cases, a dive team must retrieve evidence from the bottom of a waterway.

“The characteristics of the crash are different,” said instructor Matt Majors, a boating investigator with the Tennessee Wildlife Resources Agency. “There’s no roadway evidence, and there’s a lot less information to work with. We like to say that the roadway is a 2-D environment, while boating is a 3-D environment.”

Offered by the National Association of State Boating Law Administrators (NASBLA) and funded through a U.S. Coast Guard grant, the weeklong course is held once or twice per year and officers must complete a prerequisite class first. AZGFD headquarters is home to one of two sets of the boats used in the course and the other is stored in Havana, Fla.

During the investigation portions of the course, the boats are set up just like they were during the accident. For example, lights are turned on or off and the throttle is set to where it was at the time of impact. The course concludes with students presenting their findings, and videos of the staged collisions confirm or clarify their conclusions.

“The Arizona Game and Fish Department is the lead agency for watercraft in the state, and it’s important to provide a space for this educational opportunity for other agencies from throughout the country and even abroad,” said Tim Baumgarten, boating law administrator for AZGFD.

While the NASBLA course is for watercraft officers, AZGFD holds monthly boating safety education courses for the public in Phoenix and Lake Havasu City. Get more information about the classes and see a schedule at www.azgfd.gov/boating.

Students identify damage and measure/match that damage to another vessel involved in a crash.

Photos courtesy of NASBLA

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