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Cover Story

The Hazards of Patrolling In Snow

The winter months pose special challenges and hazards for cops in cold climes.

January 27, 2011  |  by - Also by this author

PHOTO: Dave Douglas

When a winter storm blanketed Trumann, Ark., with snow and ice early last year, the town's police chief, Larry Blagg, came across a fallen branch that'd become a road hazard. As Chief Blagg wrestled with the limb, a second branch collapsed under the weight of heavy ice and struck him. Blagg went into cardiac arrest and died while being transported to a local hospital.

In Tennessee, Franklin County Sheriff's Department Investigator Jerry Crabtree was traveling on Highway 64 when his department vehicle slid in the snow. The vehicle's compromised traction caused the investigator's car to collide with another automobile. Crabtree was killed in the collision.

Neither of the activities these officers were engaged in at the times of their deaths constituted grounds for hazardous duty pay. Yet the names of these lawmen will adorn the Law Enforcement Memorial in Washington, D.C., just as prominently as those killed in firefights and assaults.

All line-of-duty deaths are analyzed with an eye toward preventing similar tragedies. Often, there is no shortage of factors identified, with lack of training, poor physical conditioning, and improper tactics among the usual suspects. And then there are those seemingly less significant factors-less significant to most save for those unfortunate enough to have experienced them. Among these is a change of seasons.

And more than any other season, winter poses unique dangers for the patrol officer. Dealing with these threats is a matter of weather-proofing yourself both mentally and physically.

20 Seconds

Cold climate cops face unique challenges and hazards. Each degree drop in temperature carries a corresponding impact on bodily functions. The cold can make otherwise simple tasks difficult, as muscles and nerve cells work more slowly and the act of tying one's boot laces can become a painful study in compromised motor skills. Fifty-four degrees Fahrenheit is the critical temperature for good manual dexterity, 46 degrees for touch sensitivity. Lower temperatures invite even greater threats such as frostbite and hypothermia.

While living in Wisconsin, former Reno (Nev.) PD Sergeant Tim Dees first became aware of the "20-20-20 Rule."

"When the temperature is 20 below and the wind is at 20 mph, your exposed skin will freeze in 20 seconds," Dees explains.

Cold Compromises

Short of cocooning yourself indoors or inside a patrol vehicle, your ability to insulate yourself against the elements often comes down to your choice of duty wear, a decision that can also go a long way toward improving motor skills in inclement conditions.

Consider the findings of a series of tests performed at the Human Performance Laboratory of St. Cloud State University in Minnesota. Under frigid conditions, skilled shooters wearing protective gear and masks were able to establish 23 percent smaller shot patterns than those without. One can imagine how a less accomplished shooter might fare while performing under pressure and in less-controlled conditions.

A bracing cold can stimulate the mind, as temperatures below 50 degrees Fahrenheit cause surface blood vessels to dilate. With even lower temperatures, the body may act at cross-purposes with itself, one moment causing blood vessels to constrict, then expanding vessels the next as it strives to reconcile a need to preserve heat to the extremities while simultaneously supplying the skin with oxygen and nutrients.

Extreme cold may even precipitate cardiac episodes. Unlike jogging, which generally leads to a steady rise in blood pressure, a foot pursuit or altercation may cause a sudden blood pressure spike-an ominous consideration for the normally sedentary officer who finds himself in a fight or flight situation.

When evaluating what winter wear is most appropriate for the patrol officer, administrators should carefully consider the following concerns: climate, terrain, mobility, utility, durability, and user satisfaction.

Keeping the skin temperature as constant as possible is paramount. Getting in and out of patrol cars and buildings in frigid weather can be taxing. When the skin temperature falls, the body goes into overdrive to produce heat, robbing you of much needed energy. When your skin temperature rises, it sweats to produce evaporative cooling, leaving you wet and prone to heat loss and possibly hypothermia.

Proper use of layered clothing can eliminate both extremes, allowing officers to add or remove layers, as needed. The layer closest to the skin should not only trap a layer of insulating air next to the body but also wick away moisture to the top layers to prevent heat loss at the skin's surface. An insulating layer, such as a lightweight goose down vest, will help retain body heat and also dries quickly. In extremely cold climates, a breathable yet waterproof and durable outer shell can also serve as the first line of defense against the elements.

Comments (1)

Displaying 1 - 1 of 1

Jere Joiner @ 2/8/2011 3:55 PM

It should go without saying, but some people need to have things 'splained to 'em. The 20-20-20 Rule is variable, meaning exposed skin might freeze in 40 seconds at 20 below zero and there is no wind. Or 60 seconds at zero degrees and a 10 mph wind. And so on...

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