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Ohio Watercraft Chief Pam Dillon Retires

Posted: 06/14/2011
by Charlie Walbridge


Pamela S. Dillon recently retired as chief of the Ohio Department of Natural Resources (ODNR) Division of Watercraft, which administers Ohio’s boating safety, access, and law enforcement programs.  Ms. Dillon, a skilled whitewater paddler, played a key role in bringing swiftwater rescue skills used by whitewater paddlers to firefighters, rescue squads, and other safety professionals nationwide. She was also a pioneer in raising public education and awareness for non-powered boaters in general and especially for river users in Ohio.

Pam was appointed to serve as a state watercraft officer in 1977; the next year she joined the Division of Watercraft’s Public Information and Education section. It was at this time, following a tragic accident on the Olentangy River where two firefighters died, Norville Hall, Chief of the Division of Watercraft, convened a task force to work on improving safety and rescue training that included several whitewater clubs.

She had a big part in developing a river rescue program that had a far-reaching influence nationally. Back then there was not much effective swiftwater rescue training for emergency responders and the statistics showed it: the most common cause of death among firefighters was drowning! Some local whitewater clubs made an effort at outreach but it was too big a job for volunteers alone. Despite local successes they did not have a wide impact.

Lead by Jim French, Pam and a team of young watercraft officers, most of whom were Class IV paddlers, created the first swiftwater rescue training program run by a government agency for emergency responders. Because the information came from within the system it had a long reach and real credibility. The program was eventually taught at the Ohio Fire Academy and the results were striking. You began to see firefighters wearing PFD’s and helmets and using smart, proven skills.

Imitation is still the sincerest form of flattery, and similar programs soon developed in Indiana, Pennsylvania, Maryland, and Virginia. Because any firefighter death could lead to restrictions on boating, her work not only saved lives, it helped keep rivers open. Pam and her team also attended ACA-Sponsored river safety symposiums in Great Falls and Richmond, Virginia, and Ohiopyle, Pa. on their own time. Their skilled presence added much to these events and help spread the word to neighboring states.

Ms. Dillon served as one of two deputy chiefs in the division of Watercraft before departing ODNR in November, 2002 to become executive director of the Virginia-based American Canoe Association. Her five-year tenure was marked by extensive cooperation and outreach to the Coast Guard and State Boating Law Administrators. ACA under her leadership produced an extensive study that showed that the number of fatalities in canoes, kayaks, and rafts was linked to the growth of the sport in the previous 20 years than any issue requiring regulation. Her skilled and thoughful work prevented unnecessary regulation and helped focus resources on education. 

In October, 2007 Pam became the Chief of the Division of Watercraft where she served as Ohio’s State Boating Law Administrator in charge of the state’s waterways law enforcement activities and boating programs. In 2009, Pam, as division chief, was credited with saving Ohio's Scenic Rivers program which had been targeted for elimination. She then laid the foundation to increase low impact access to these river systems.

All paddlers join us in recognizing Pam Dillon for her truly remarkable achievements in boating education and safety. Look for her and husband Virgil Chambers at their second home: Pennsylvania's Lower Youghiogheny River


Charles Walbridge
Bruceton Mills, WV