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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

Gaining Traction

Steve Nelson, a sergeant with the Sedgwick County (Kan.) Sheriff's Office, has had his fair share of cold wintry days and nights on patrol. An advocate of layered clothing, he recommends that cops invest not only in quality boots, but also clip-on shoe spikes for better traction.

That's good advice because cold weather falls can be catastrophic. Illinois State Trooper April Styburski was investigating a property accident when she heard a second accident occur nearby. Running toward the second accident, Styburski slipped on the icy pavement, landing on her back so hard that she inhaled gastric acid into her lungs. Styburski's vitals shut down and she was subsequently pronounced dead at St. Joseph Hospital.

Beyond traction, officers need to make sure they have room in which to maneuver.

Another Illinois State Trooper, Anthony Millison, was directing traffic around the scene of an accident when a vehicle spun out of control toward him on the icy street. In evading the oncoming vehicle, Trooper Millison fell 75 feet over a guard rail and to his death.

While some tragedies cannot be avoided, there are steps officers can take to minimize their chances of getting injured or killed.

Nelson recommends that officers investigating traffic collisions on hills, curves, or bridges move the cars, if possible. "People will continue to drive in excess of 55 miles per hour, even on ice. Then they'll hit the brakes, slide, and strike you. If you can't move the cars, then get flares or another unit on the blind side to warn and slow other traffic, if possible. Wear reflective gear while out on an accident scene, whether it's day or night."

North Randall, Ohio, Officer Dave Goldenberg knows well of what Nelson speaks.

Goldenberg was working with a different law enforcement agency when he stopped and activated his emergency lights to alert motorists of a disabled pickup truck that was jutting into a traffic lane from a bar ditch.

He requested a tow when something told him not to stay in his cruiser. "Skating" to the opposite shoulder, he waved his arms to get cars to slow down as they passed by.

Then, it happened.

"An older car-not speeding, but going too fast for conditions-came along," Goldenberg recalls. "I could see the driver's panicked expression as he realized that the cop car with all the lights on in front of him wasn't moving. He slammed on the brakes and wrenched at the wheel-exactly the wrong things to do on black ice. His front wheels turned all the way to the left, but the car didn't. It sailed straight into the back end of my cruiser."

Into the Skid

To make sure officers don't make the same mistakes as the motorist who plowed into Goldenberg's cruiser, many law enforcement agencies train their officers how to drive in a variety of conditions.

The gold standard for such training is a track equipped with a skidpad. Cost-conscious agencies, however, sometimes opt for the Skidcar. Equipped with a four-wheeled hydraulic frame that can simulate loss of traction in a number of situations, the Skidcar can evaluate an officer's ability to properly accelerate or brake in compromised road conditions at one-tenth the cost of maintaining a skidpad.

Sgt. Noel Houze Jr., a spokesperson with the Indiana State Police, is also an EVOC instructor and creator of Indiana's "move over" law, the first in the country. Houze wishes that law enforcement agencies would place a greater premium on the amount of EVOC training they give their personnel, particularly as it relates to wintry conditions.

"Many agencies have firearms training multiple times in a year because they don't want their officers getting sued," Houze observes. "But how many officers actually have to fire their weapons throughout a 20- or 30-year career?"

Houze points out that both city and rural cops can be counted on to roll hard at least once or twice a day, be it responding to a call or chasing down a guy who's doing 90 to 100 mph.

"Blacktop, concrete, or gravel; a straight or curved road-it's dangerous," Houze notes. "And adding bad weather makes it only more so."

The relative lack of priority given winter driving threats befuddles Houze, who believes that officers are more likely to be seriously injured or killed in traffic accidents than by violent assaults. His intuition likewise suggests that driving incidents cause more liability issues for law enforcement agencies than many kinds of force incidents, lethal and not.

Robert Bragg, program manager for the Fitness and Force Training in the Washington State Criminal Justice Training Commission, empathizes with Houze's frustration.

Having faced his own frustration in trying to obtain Skidcars for the state's training program, Bragg openly wonders how many other states's EVOC training programs may be hamstrung by the number of skidpads available to their police agencies. He cites instances in his own weather-plagued state where some cops don't get the degree of training they should because the same skidpads are shared with other municipal entities such as bus drivers.

The same budgetary constraints that hamstring an agency's ability to adequately train officers may also precipitate additional driving threats, with cops burning the midnight oil either out of mercenary want, or mandated overtime.

"When you look at the specifics of single-officer involved accidents, a huge factor is that the officers probably shouldn't have been out driving," notes Bragg. "They're at the tail end of a long shift and their driving skills just aren't up to what they think they are. This can become problematic as we have the constant problem of wet pavement. It's not like those areas where it rains for half a day and just dries up. The kind of snow we have is wetter, too, than in other parts of the country."

Sgt. Houze believes that whatever their training or sleep histories, officers need to make a conscious effort to ask themselves pertinent questions before putting the pedal to the metal.

"One, how far away are you? And two, what are the weather and traffic conditions? If your primary concern is to treat the injured and you're far enough away that EMS is going to get there before you do, there's no sense driving hard," Houze says. "Look at burglar and bank alarms. The first thing many cops want to do is put those red lights and sirens on and roll as fast as they can go. It's been my experience that 99 percent of the time they're accidental in nature."

Sgt. Steve Nelson gives another reason to think twice before rolling with lights and siren in snow environs. "Emergency lights will reflect back off the snow and can become distracting-just like driving with high beams in the snow or heavy fog."

Snow Tires

Training is one aspect of risk management, technology another. While patrol vehicles often have state-of-the-art automatic braking systems, when it comes to winter conditions stopping a patrol car is less brake-dependent than traction-dictated: If tires have little or no traction, then no manner of braking is going to help stop the car.

To compensate, several tire manufacturers have specialized lines of tires designed for varying weather conditions.

Pirelli's Winter 249 Sottozero has been pursuit tested by the EVOC team of the Los Angeles County Sheriff's Department and found to perform admirably in both wintry and sunny conditions. In separate testing, the ContiProContact available on the Dodge Charger and Magnum proved equal to, and outperformed, the Goodyear Eagle RS-A in wet traction, ice traction, hydroplane resistance, and road noise.

Fleet managers need to take a close look at the conditions most prevalent for their patrol jurisdictions, e.g., packed snow, wet pavements, flooded streets, or icy roads, before deciding on a particular brand.

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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