Chances are that at some point during your law enforcement career you will work around water. I don’t say that because I have some special ability to see your future. It’s geographically almost a sure thing.
The United States is nearly surrounded by three massive bodies of water: the Atlantic Ocean, the Pacific Ocean, and the Gulf of Mexico. More than three-quarters of our territory borders some body of water, including oceans, bays, rivers, and lakes. In addition, we have creeks, streams, and ponds. We even have such manmade water hazards as reservoirs, swimming pools, drainage ditches, and canals. So trust me when I say this: 99.9 percent of you will someday do your job next to or near water.
Train in as realistic an environment as possible. If you're likely to work on or near open water, train there.
Training in the open water is recommended. You can't get the same experience in a swimming pool.
The question I want to ask you is: Are you prepared to work around water? Are you trained to stay alive in water, and to fight and prevail in water?
Note, I didn’t ask “Can you swim?” Most of us can swim. At least, we can swim enough to get out of trouble if we fall into a pool in our street clothes. The critical question is: Have you been trained to keep yourself alive and functioning as an officer if you end up in water on the job?
Working Near Water
Let’s start with the basics. Your agency should screen its officers to learn who can survive in water and who can’t. Fortunately, most agencies are not stupid enough to assign officers who can’t swim to work marine patrols. But what many fail to realize is that because there is so much water in so many of our patrol areas, any officer working in the field should be able to function during and after an unexpected plunge.
Let me clarify exactly what I am talking about. This is not recreational swimming. Very few cops would find it fun or invigorating to take a dip dressed while on duty dressed in all their gear.
Most people swim for fun in lightweight swimsuits. That means that all they have to worry about even in the deepest water is keeping their own body mass afloat.
In contrast, let’s throw a fully dressed and equipped male officer into the deep end of the pool. Let’s assume a body weight of about 230 pounds and about 18 pounds of duty gear and uniform, including the following: soft body armor, uniform (T-shirt, long pants, short-sleeve shirt), footwear with socks, duty belt, pistol, magazine pouch with two loaded magazines, two handcuff cases with handcuffs, baton with carrier, radio with case, and flashlight with case. After being submerged in the water for one minute the approximate water-logged weight of this officer is 265 pounds.
A 35-pound differential between a fully clothed and equipped officer and one in swim trunks may not seem like much. But it doesn’t take much weight to make a person lose buoyancy, and it’s very hard to swim when you are encumbered by a ballistic vest, duty gear, and boots.
From a safety and liability perspective, agencies owe it to their officers to examine their limitations in the water. If your department doesn’t screen its officers for water survival skills, then it becomes contingent upon you to seek out ways to evaluate your own limitations.
Swimming vs. Treading
There are two basic ways to stay alive in deep water: swimming and treading water. The question that law enforcement officers must ask themselves is: Which skill is more applicable to their job environment?
Practice treading water and swimming with your head above water and your handgun at the ready. You want to be able to use force if necessary. If you can't stay above water, you can't keep the advantage.
Remember that if you enter the water on duty, you will likely be taking the plunge wearing 18-plus pounds of duty equipment, shoes, a uniform, a ballistic vest, and other accessories. Consider also that you will probably be engaging a subject who is either being arrested or needs to be rescued and the responsibility for that subject falls squarely on your shoulders. Further, you may be compelled to engage this subject who is panicked and/or resisting your attempts to control him.
In this environment, being able to tread water, to keep your body upright, and your head out of the water takes precedence over the ability to swim. To prevail in such a situation, you have to be able to enter the water safely, maintain eye contact with the subject(s), and control your buoyancy.
Beyond saving yourself from drowning, there are certain skills that an officer must have in order to survive a water engagement. You have to be able to exercise the force continuum in the water. And that’s easier said than done.
The following is a set of training objectives that you must master in order to do your job effectively in the water.
Become comfortable entering the water from a raised platform while in full gear and struggling with another person. This simulates falling from a dock or boat while engaging a subject on duty.
The first stage of learning how to operate in water is for you to become comfortable with suddenly being thrown into water in uniform, including boots and gear. If training in a pool, you should be thrown in from the side and from a platform if possible. The idea is to simulate what it would be like to plunge into water from a boat, dock, or pier. Make sure the pool is at least eight feet deep.