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DNR Conservation Officers: Public Safety Officers, Too

Officer Mark Ennett

January 5, 2012

To a lot of people, conservation officers are perceived as "fish cops", men and women who go around measuring fish, checking licenses and otherwise enforcing the game and fish laws of the state.

But COs are fully empowered peace officers with the same powers and responsibilities as police. That includes public safety.

And though that part of the job may not be visible to the casual observer, COs take it seriously. In the last several years, a number of Michigan Department of Natural Resources conservation officers have been cited for meritorious service for their life saving actions.

Need an example? Let's start with Sgt. Marc Pomroy and CO Dave Painter in Iron County. The pair received a call about a missing elderly gentleman, who had gone on his usual morning walk, but failed to return by early afternoon.

Painter and Pomroy contacted the fellow's sister (who'd reported him missing) and went out to look for the man. He was not where his sister said he usually walked, but the pair noticed some tracks, recently made, but rapidly disappearing in the blowing snow, and commenced following them.

Long story short, the pair located the man, who was down in the snow, unresponsive and bleeding from both wrists (apparently a suicide attempt). The officers began first aid and carried the man, who was suffering from severe hypothermia, back to the truck and drove him out to the road where an ambulance awaited.

The fellow was treated for hypothermia and was spared loss of life and limb. (He also agreed to seek psychiatric care.)

According to a letter from Sgt. Wade Cross of the Iron County Sheriff's Department, "the ?heads up' work of Painter and Pomroy saved this man's life."

Sometimes, life saving intervention is matter of being in the right place at the right time. Conservation Officers Scott Brown and Robert Hobkirk were at a launch ramp at Saginaw Bay, trying to determine the best course of action for patrol on a cold, windy, wet day, when a pair of duck hunters came in to the dock in a nearly swamped 18 foot boat. They reported that the third member of their party was out in a now untended layout boat.

The officers went out to look for the hunter and found him out of the boat and in the water with waves crashing above his head. He was too cold and weak to move, but the COs managed to pull him into their boat, get him to shore and out of his clothes, and warm him up. Fortunately, he'd only been in the water about 10 minutes. The hunter thanked the officers profusely for saving his life.

Less than a year later, Hobkirk was involved in another near drowning incident, this time with conservation officer Chad Foerster. The pair was on patrol when they came across an apparently intoxicated young male who was trying to swim across the Saginaw River. When the officers asked him if he needed help, he declined it, and immediately disappeared beneath the surface. When the swimmer bobbed up, Hobkirk was able to grab his hand and the pair hauled him into their boat. According to Mobile Medical Response employee Anthony Ronaldo, who met the officers and victim on land, the man would have drowned had not the officers intervened.

Alcohol and water sports also figured into a rescue on the St. Clair River during the annual Float Down event. Conservation Officers Todd Szyska and Ken Kovach were assisting the U.S. Coast Guard on a safety patrol when they responded to a call for help from a young male who was holding onto a tube and a female companion. The female passed out and submerged, came up, and submerged again. The male, who turned out to be her son, managed to grab her and Szyska was able to grasp her by the torso and haul her into the boat. The victim, who was incoherent, combative and extremely intoxicated, was turned over to emergency medical personnel.

Of course, not all attempts at life saving end happily. Conservation Officer Carl Vanderwall was performing maintenance on his watercraft at Petoskey State Park when he was told a swimmer was struggling nearby in two to three foot waves. He raced down to the beach and assisted some others in pulling the 40 year old male, who was not breathing and had no pulse, to shore.

Vanderwall immediately assisted with CPR until EMS arrived on the scene, but the victim did not survive. Vanderwall was cited for meritorious service.

Often the interventions do end happily. Officers Jonathon Sklba and Mark Ennett responded to a report of a capsized vessel in high seas on Lake Erie. Ennett located the boat from shore and Sklba accompanied a Monroe County marine rescue patrol out into the lake, where two subjects were plucked from the water. They were pulled aboard the rescue boat and taken to shore for treatment of hypothermia.

Officers Joe Molnar, William Webster, Richard Stowe and Sgt. Greg Drogowski teamed up to search for a boater whose boat sunk more than two miles off shore in Lake Huron north of Alpena. One of the boaters was able to swim to shore but the other couldn't. All officers searched for the victim for almost two hours before Molnar, who was in his 16 foot boat along with a paramedic, spotted an orange object (a life jacket) bobbing on the surface. Molnar alerted the nearby Coast Guard vessel and the victim was hoisted aboard the larger boat as Molnar dropped off the paramedic to treat the victim. The victim was very near death from hypothermia when he was rescued.

Molnar received a Life Saving Award and the three other officers were given Meritorious Service Awards.

In each of these cases, the DNR conservation officers involved went far beyond measuring fish when called upon.

Michigan's conservation officers are much, much more than fish cops. They are public servants who make public safety, up to and including saving lives, a big part of their job.

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