Lake Sidney Lanier spans nearly 40,000 acres of water and covers 692 shoreline miles in five counties.
The area plays host to around 7.5 million visitors annually.
In short — it’s big and it’s popular.
But law enforcement presence on the lake is sometimes sparse, especially during non-peak hours.
Capt. Mark Padgett of the Georgia Department of Natural Resource’s law enforcement division says he employs 26 rangers charged with covering 19 counties in North Georgia, including the area of Lanier.
He said about 10 rangers work the lake on a regular basis. On any given weekday, one-third of them could be off duty. And during late-night hours and some weekdays, there could be no ranger on patrol at all.
“You’ve got to understand, in a typical police force you have shifts because you have numbers,” Padgett said. “Even Georgia State Patrol runs shifts. We don’t have shifts.”
They focus their efforts during peak hours, which usually fall on weekends. That could mean 12-plus hours patrolling the water.
Local law enforcement, including the Hall County Sheriff’s Office, also patrol the lake.
“The majority of our marine patrol duties are handled by our reserve deputies, and, of course, most of those officers work regular jobs and they’re not available through the week in many cases,” said Sgt. Stephen Wilbanks, spokesman for the sheriff’s office.
The department has one patrol boat and two personal watercrafts stationed in the water at Gainesville Marina.
But when emergency calls come in from Lanier, the DNR is generally first on the scene, Wilbanks said, especially during the week.
“It really depends on when the call comes in as to what our response time is going to be,” Wilbanks said. “In many cases, the DNR is going to be the first unit there, and sometimes they’re the only unit available until more resources can get on the water and to the scene.”
The DNR keeps five boats stationed strategically on the water. How fast rangers respond from those locations, when they’re not on patrol, depends on the time and location of the incident and where the off-duty rangers are.
“The nearest person may be Rockdale,” Padgett said. “That kind of adds for a little issue when you get up here on the lake, especially during the week.”
This year, the DNR response times to a variety of incidents have ranged from less than a minute to almost 12 hours. It varies depending on severity and when the report comes in.
“We get reports from every county that’s on the lake,” Padgett said. “Sometimes we get them from hospitals. Sometimes we get them from marinas. We don’t have a central dispatch — we do now, now that we dispatch out of (Georgia State Patrol), but they don’t always call them.”
From January to mid-July of this year, the DNR had files for six boating accidents with injuries. From the time of the accident to when law enforcement arrived ranged from 15 to 39 minutes in those cases.
Response times were not kept prior to this year, when the department began using a new documentation system.
“I’ve never had a complaint about response time,” Padgett said. “It’s something that’s never really come up because we’re going to get there as soon as we can. The only problem is we may not be right there. We don’t have precincts. I got 19 counties and 26 people that cover them ... you can’t be everywhere all the time.”
To date, there have been seven deaths on Lake Lanier this year. There were 17 deaths last year and five in 2010.
Reports for the Prince brothers fatal accident in June and the one that killed 11-year-old Kile Glover earlier this month were not completed yet. But Padgett said the response time for the June incident was about 50 minutes, while rangers responded in less than 30 seconds to the July incident.
The DNR was the first responder in both cases.
And officials are quick to point out the need for communication between agencies on the water.
When a call comes in from the lake, the 911 dispatch in the appropriate county notifies local authorities, along with the DNR.
Agencies, like Hall County, send ground units to the nearest shoreline access point. The DNR, if a boat is not on the water, will contact the closest ranger who will respond with the closest boat.
Law enforcement vessels and rescue boats, like Hall County Fire/Rescue’s craft, get on the water as fast as they can.
“Our boat is an ambulance on the water,” said Fire Chief David Kimbrell, adding the rescue boat is on the water during the weekends and dry-docked during the week.
But sometimes, as was the case when a fishing boat hit the pontoon boat carrying 9-year-old Jake Prince and his 13-year-old brother Griffin, figuring out where someone is on the lake is confusing.
That night, Hall County’s dispatch line had transfer calls from Gwinnett and Forsyth counties while crews tried to determine where the wreck occurred.
“Appropriate agency response is the first hurdle,” Wilbanks said. “We have to determine what jurisdiction it took place in. But if it’s an emergency situation, we’re not so much concerned about: ‘This is not in our county, we’re not going to respond.’ If it’s an emergency call, we’re going to send emergency services to that person or incident and we’ll sort it out as soon as we can, but we’re going make sure the people that need help get help as quickly as we can deliver it.”
It’s part of the inherent challenges in responding to emergencies on the lake, officials said. And each incident comes with its own difficulties.
“It varies depending on the nature of the incident because not every incident is going to require the same kind of response,” Wilbanks said.