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10 reasons a personal watercraft can work for your department

While PWCs will never meet the needs of every department or every scenario, they are proven to be effective as maritime patrol vessels


Any department can tailor a program which takes advantage of the PWC’s unique benefits which make them a real force multiplier for law enforcement.

Image courtesy of New York State Department of Environmental Conservation

If you read my recent article concerning tips for starting a marine unit you will remember two important points. First, that you should attempt to make your units as versatile as possible, and second, that you should attempt to obtain the best equipment that you can afford. Well, I would like to offer one more tip: think small!

No, I do not mean small in terms of missions or capability. When I say small I am referring to watercraft size and price tag. You may be able to accomplish both goals by adding personal watercraft (PWCs) to you inventory. While many departments fail to consider PWCs when equipping their marine patrol units, many others have recognized their versatility in much the same manner that they have recognized Segways or bicycles as valuable tools for patrolling crowded areas like malls, parks, and airports.

While PWCs will never meet the needs of every department or every scenario, they are proven to be effective as maritime patrol vessels.

1. Their small size not only allows for quick transport to remote locations, they can be towed with any vehicle equipped with a tow hitch (no need to purchase expensive SUVs or limited purpose 4 wheel drive trucks)
2. PWCs can often be launched at even the smallest of ramps or even at a gently sloped natural shoreline
3. Their extreme speeds — some capable of speeds in excess of 55 mph — make them ideal for quick initial response to boating accidents, search and rescue missions, or police response to island-based cabins or campgrounds
4. Departments with limited manpower can take advantage of the fact that PWCs only require one officer for effective operation (most larger patrol vessels may require both an operator and boarding officer)
5. PWCs are generally easier to operate thus allowing for their use by less experienced officers
6. Shallow draft allows for access to areas otherwise unable to be patrolled
7. No exposed propeller means that there is a reduced chance of injury when operating in crowded areas or when rescuing persons from the water
8. While many of today’s models can cost as much as $12,000 this is often a fraction of the cost of purchasing and equipping a full size law enforcement patrol vessel
9. Reduced fuel consumption and generally lower maintenance cost often result in additional cost savings
10. One last point on money: the Port Security Grant Program (PSGP), which had $288 Million in available in FY 2010 is just one federal grant program through which your agency can get funding resources for the purchase of a PWC (check out for lots of other resources)

Just as no patrol vehicle or vessel is perfectly suited for every mission, PWCs also have some limitations.

• A lack of navigation lights limits their use to daylight operation
• Smaller models can often lack the stability necessary to conduct safe and effective one-on-one interaction with boaters
• Like motorcycles or bicycles, PWCs offer no shelter from extreme weather which often limits their use during colder months or inclement conditions
• Secondary vessels are often required to address the potential need to transport prisoners or extra equipment
• Despite their shallow draft, jet powered vessels are often limited in their ability to operate in areas of heavy weeds or gravel (which can be sucked into the intake)

Cheap is Good, Free is Better
As with any aspect of law enforcement, cost is always an issue. While the initial cost of PWCs may be less than a full size patrol vessel there is also another option available — the ability to obtain free loaner units. Through the First Responder Loaner Program, sponsored by the Personal Watercraft Industry Association, manufacturers often make PWCs available to law enforcement agencies at no cost other than fuel and light maintenance requirements. Furthermore, most of these programs allow for the replacement of their PWC fleet on a regular schedule.

Departments interested in participating in such a program should contact a local dealer or the manufacturer directly if no local dealer is available. Specific application requirements vary by manufacturer but generally include an official request on letterhead, a waiver releasing the dealer from any liability and an agreement that the department will be responsible for damage beyond normal wear and tear.

Training Requirements
Anyone who has patrolled or boated American waters in the last 20 years knows that PWCs have at times been subject to a less than favorable reputation. Although much of this is the result of generalized stereotyping, like many reputations it is rooted in some degree of fact. Early models were often difficult for the inexperienced operator to control, especially in tight quarters. Even as designs improved their lower purchase and operating cost appealed to first time buyers, many of whom were themselves inexperienced. This often resulted in PWCs being involved in a statistically disproportionate number of accidents, especially collisions with other vessels and fixed objects.

As a result, many states now have mandatory education and licensing requirements specific to PWCs. These courses vary in length and subject matter depending upon jurisdiction and may include a combination of classroom and practical testing of basic skills. Not only will officers assigned to PWC duty be required to complete this training, they will also need to obtain advanced instruction in the specific capabilities of the craft obtained by your department and the mission they are to be assigned.

Putting Your PWC Into Action
The biggest question concerning PWCs is how they will be utilized. As previously stated, one of the obvious limitations involving the use of PWCs by law enforcement is their limited passenger capacity. Although many modern PWCs are capable of carrying three persons, their limited stability and close quarters often require they be manned by single officers. Therefore, there are continued concerns regarding their use as primary contact units.

Likewise, there are many missions for which the PWC is perfectly suited, even more so than a traditional watercraft. As stated earlier, the jet drive of a PWC makes it ideal for use in close proximity to swimmers or persons needing rescue. Furthermore their compact size and light weight means that they are not only quick to be deployed but can also access areas which would be otherwise inaccessible. An additional advantage for traditional police departments looking to add a watercraft to their inventory it the fact that most patrol vehicle, even sedans, can be outfitted with a hitch capable of towing a single PWC and trailer, thus reducing the need to purchase specialized four wheel drive vehicles.

Each department will need to evaluate their specific requirements and the abilities of their officers when determining exactly how the units will be deployed. Some may find that PWCs are best used in a covert scouting manner, with contact being made by more traditional patrol vessels. Others may choose to utilize the PWC as a primary patrol and contact vessel, especially in smaller harbors or marinas. Regardless of which method in which the PWC is deployed it is likely that additional support units will be required, especially for the purpose of transporting suspects.

Either way, the any department can tailor a program which takes advantage of the PWC’s unique benefits which make them a real force multiplier for law enforcement.

Tom Burrell began his career in maritime enforcement in 1992 when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, following his service in the USMC Reserves during Desert Storm. He would see service in Key West, (Fla.) Norfolk, Va., and New York City, both afloat and ashore with duties, which ranged from drug and alien interdiction to recreational boating safety. During this time he would serve in a variety of positions including boarding team member, boarding officer, boat crew, coxswain and master helmsman. Achievements include Coxswain “C” School Honor Graduate, numerous humanitarian service awards and involvement in several high profile joint operations — including the security for JFK International Airport during the 50th anniversary celebrations of the United Nations.

In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission as a Waterways Conservation Officer, a position that would include postings in Northcentral & Southeast Regions. In 2002 he was promoted to sergeant, in 2012 he was promoted to captain in the Special Investigation Section, and in 2015 was selected for LtCol and Assistant Bureau Director. As LtCol he was in charge of agency training, the agency academy, cadet selection and the Northern tier operations. He retired in 2023 and spends his time hunting, fishing and keeping up with the latest law enforcement developments.