On Tuesday, September 8th, a town hall is set to take place at the Okaloosa County Board of County Commissioners Chambers in Shalimar, FL. to discuss the use of jet skis on Okaloosa County Waterways.
This meeting is happening on the heels of several serious jet ski crashes that have happened recently including horrible accident on Poquito Bayou involving James Phillips and his daughter Bethany on August 15th. A person on a rented jet ski crashed into them, sending them airborne and into the water. They both have had major surgeries and still in recovery.
In the time since the accident, there has been a Board of County Commissioner’s meeting along with a more private meeting between jet ski rental companies to discuss ways to improve safety on the water.
At the August 18th Commissioner’s meeting, discussions around rentals included:
- Minimum operating age.
- Restricting locations (waterways) where rentals can operate or restrict the companies to certain waterway locations.
- Maximum speeds by use of governors.
- Distance from shore.
- Potentially look at the maximum amount of rentals that can be out on the water at any given time. (This would require a study.)
Commissioner Ketchel proposed the idea of having Poquito Bayou an “off zone” with the possibility of having speed restrictions put into place on the bayou.
With the being said, Commissioner Ketchel made it clear that she wanted to hear from constituents and residents who live on Poquito Bayou. As for the upcoming town hall, Commissioner Ketchel set up the meeting and will give a briefing on what’s been accomplished since the jet ski accident, along with other county staff.
“We want to hear from citizens as it is our goal to make our waterways safe for those who live there, as well as those who play here,” said Ketchel to Get The Coast.
Jet ski rental companies looking to self-regulate
The private meeting between local jet ski rentals companies on August 26th was to address safety issues associated with the rental jet ski industry and discuss potential strategies that can be undertaken by all parties to make the activity safer.
Major talking points from that meeting include:
- Prohibit the marketing of “Speed” on the jet skis in order to prevent reckless behavior.
- Prohibit the use of “Peer to Peer” websites that rent jet skis or boats without using a licensed livery operator. Increase fines and enforcements if violating.
- The Okaloosa County Tourism Development Department possibly working with jet ski companies to push a “need-to-know” campaign discussing water (boat/jet ski) safety.
- No Wake signs made larger and more numerous around Destin Harbor, East Pass and Crab Island.
- Law Enforcement (Okaloosa County Sheriffs Office) could reinstate the safety briefing with vessel rental companies at the beginning of the season. A potential 2-day training session (certificate) with the rental companies to really highlight best management practices and safety concerns, was also recommended.
- Require governors (maximum speed controls) on all jet skis. Some companies already do this.
- Establish a VHF working channel for vessel rental companies to coordinate, respond and address potential issues on the water.
- Require more robust knowledge test prior to renting vessels. The state requires a test that can be taken online but the rental companies reserve the right to add additional testing requirements beyond the state mandated minimum.
- Restricting rental jet ski use in the Bayous (north section of bay). There are a number of companies that already restrict use in those waterways.
- Explore the use of geofencing technology that mechanically restricts speed in no-wake zones and in out-of-boundary areas such as the Gulf or proposed bayous. The technology needed to make this happen will cost around ~$500/ jet ski.
Additionally, there was talk of rental companies forming a “monitoring” program that positions employees in different areas of the rental area (waterways) to intercept rentals that may be breaking minor rules. In many cases, it’s a matter of the renters not knowing they are in the wrong. While “monitoring” already occurs on a small level, the idea would be to increase the organization of the monitoring and the number of employees on the water.
According to discussions at the meeting, having “monitors” will help reduce the efforts required by the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Office and other law enforcement agencies that should be directing their attention towards more serious issues.
The “monitors” would also have some form of identification such as a bright vest or lights to help identify who they are.
During 2017, Okaloosa County ranked #4 in Personal Watercraft crashes statewide, according to the Okaloosa County Sheriff’s Department.
The OCSD stated that in an effort to help reduce violations and increase safety, the Marine Unit met with Personal Watercraft rental businesses to try and help ensure compliance of boating state statutes. The goal was to ultimately help reduce marine violations and increase safety for the customers and other boaters.
The Sheriff’s office said that “inexperience, carelessness, and excessive speed are to blame for most jet ski/waverunner accidents.”
The town hall meeting will take place at 6pm on Tuesday September 8th at 1250 N. Eglin Parkway, Suite 100 in Shalimar.