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Long, hot summer keeps water patrols busy
Sonar used in some searches
Reserve Capt. Harry Chapman with the Hall County Sheriff’s Office Lake Patrol Unit ties off a boat Friday at the courtesy dock at Longwood Park in Gainesville. The Lake Patrol is out policing the waters of Lake Lanier this holiday weekend. - photo by SARA GUEVARA

This summer Northeast Georgia experienced record high temperatures and severe drought conditions, bringing millions of visitors to Lake Lanier.

Sgt. Johnny Johnson of the Department of Natural Resources in Gainesville said about 8 million people visited the lake throughout the summer.

"Of course it's been a long, hot summer and we find that usually when you're in a hot, hot summer like we have been more and more people come to the lake," Johnson said.

DNR boat patrols mainly focus on weekends, but Johnson said patrols could be out on weekdays depending on the need.

"We don't work shifts," he said. "We patrol as needed and we just play it by how the boat traffic is looking, whether it's heavy or light or whatever."

Not everything was fun and games, however, as the DNR charged 29 boaters with BUIs since Memorial Day weekend.

Similar to a traffic stop, DNR Boat Patrols must have a reason to stop a boat, Johnson said.

"Maybe the registration's not right or it's at night, maybe the boat doesn't have the proper lights or no lights," he said. "Typically there's a reason why we stop a boat."

When a boat is stopped, DNR officers conduct a safety inspection to ensure all passengers have a life jacket of the right size, a fire extinguisher is onboard and that the boat is registered.

"While this inspection is going on that's when the officers are determining if an operator is impaired, especially if they've detected an odor of alcohol through the inspections, how that person is reacting, if they're able to get what you're asking them for, can they remember what you're asking for and those sort of things," Johnson said.

While a BUI has no impact on a person's driving record, Johnson said many judges will sentence violators to the same penalties as a DUI.

Throughout the summer the lake also experienced 15 deaths as a result of drowning or boat accidents, which Johnson said is higher than in recent years, but not the highest summer death total.

"When you're talking about 15 deaths and 8 million visitors, it's still high and higher than we want it to be, but when you look at that statistically it's pretty safe," Johnson said.

In the case of a person reported missing on the lake, the Hall County Sheriff's Office's Dive Team responds to attempt to recover that person.

Col. Jeff Strickland, chief deputy for the Hall County Sheriff's Office, said the Dive Team consists of 10 divers and has three different boats to utilize during rescue operations.

"We have one patrol boat that's multi-purpose, and then we've got our Dive Team platform boat and then we've got a small pontoon boat that we use for auxiliary things and occasionally to run the side scan sonar off of," Strickland said.

Johnson said typically during a search for a missing person on the lake, the Dive Team will initially search for about an hour in hopes of finding that person still alive, but after that point it will focus on recovering the body.

"We have underwater sonar and things like that to help try to recover folks if it's in an area we can use it," Johnson said.

Dive Team officers are required to obtain various open water dive certifications, as well as complete eight hours of training each month.

The sheriff's office was also donated two Jet Skis, which are used by reserve officers to patrol the lake.


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