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.
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?
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.
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.
Note: Since water has bad effects on most ballistic vests, it’s not a good idea to wear your duty vest during this training. However, since you are training to survive a plunge on duty, you need to experience what it’s like to go into the water in a vest. I would recommend using old, out-of-service vests from your department for this training.
Once you’re in the water, you need to learn to move like a cop while swimming. First, swim with your head in the water to simulate a simple scenario where you merely have to swim to safety. Do this with and without a weapon. Use Blue Guns or some other full-size, full-weight training tools to simulate your duty guns. Yes, your real guns will work in the water. However, water can rust the springs and cause other damage, so don’t use them for this training.
Now, let’s make the swimming exercise more like what you would probably have to do in the real world. Odds are if you go into the water on duty, you are going to do so for one of two reasons: to rescue someone or because a subject has thrown you in the water. In both cases, you will need to keep your head out of the water, so that you can scan for this person. So for the next part of this training, swim a designated distance with your head above the water. Now repeat the same exercise with your weapon in hand.
When swimming with a firearm, remember to keep your trigger finger off the trigger and alongside the trigger guard. If you are assigned to a watery environment such as marine patrol, or even beach patrol, consider using a lanyard at the base of your weapon to secure it to your dutybelt while swimming.
Remember, this training is specifically designed to teach you to use force and take control of subjects in the water. So the next phase of the training is to learn how to control and stabilize a subject in the water.
It’s here where treading water becomes critical. If you are using your hands to fight a subject, your legs will be your only means of keeping your head above water. Practice grips and grabs, as well as empty hand strikes and other force options while treading water. (For more on how to fight a resistive suspect in water, see the sidebar “Fighting in Water” below.)
Remember, the goal of this training is one, to learn how to survive a sudden plunge into deep water while on duty and, two, to learn how to use force in the water to control and arrest resisting subjects. Consequently, you should train to use your weapons while treading water. These include your baton, your chemical spray, and even a replica of your sidearm. Keep in mind that it might be difficult to determine whether a subject is resisting or merely panicking.
Note: There are very few facilities where you can actually shoot your actual sidearm while treading water. So you may want to use Airsoft pistols for target practice.
As on dry land, there will be times that you will be in water and you may need to evade an attack or seek cover. I recommend that you incorporate such maneuvers into your water training. It’s especially important that you learn how to disengage from an attack from a subject or subjects by swimming away and treading water or even submerging yourself.
Finally, as an officer of the law, you may someday find yourself in the water needing to communicate with rescuers, backup officers, or even with dangerous subjects while treading water. This is more difficult than you might think. So practice these techniques.
Note: Water may damage your radio. So use a replica for training.
Very few officers in the United States have this level of water operations training. But if you work in a jurisdiction where you are near or on boats, docks, or piers, then you need it. It’s also a good idea to learn how to operate in water if your jurisdiction includes rivers, lakes, and even backyard swimming pools.
Dave Young is the Director of Specialized Programs for the Tactical Training Division of Fox Valley Technical College and the Director of Training for RedMan Training Gear. He is a 20-year veteran of both civilian and military law enforcement, and a member of the Police Advisory Board.
Fighting in Water
When fighting around the water you may fall in or be pushed in. Here are some key tips that will help you react quickly, get back in the fight, and win.
Before you hit the water, take a bit of air.
As you fall toward the water, tuck your chin, close your mouth, and protect your head from the subject.
During your fall and in the water, guard your firearm and watch the subject’s hands to keep him or her away from your gear. If the subject grabs your baton or OC, then you will lose the advantage.
Odds are that you have a distinct advantage in this situation. Your adversary is likely not trained to fight in water and will panic. Use this against him.
When you hit the water in a fight do not try to surface quickly. Seize the initiative by taking your attacker under the water. He will probably not be prepared for a sudden forced submersion. And the farther you take a combative subject down from the surface, the harder it will be for him to focus on attacking you.
You can also use this tactic on subjects who try to climb or jump on you. Use the advantage of their sudden panic to get them to release you then swim to the surface.
You may have to reengage them, but the next attack will be on your terms with your choice of positioning, grips, and weapons.
If you want to disengage, 12 feet should be your minimum goal. That’s about four to six freestyle strokes.
If you are assigned to work near or on a watery environment, here is a list of the basic water safety equipment you should have in your car.
• Two life preservers (Coast Guard approved)
• 50 feet of yellow nylon throw rope with float for pull ins
• Waterproof flashlight
• CPR mask
• Automatic external defibrillator
• Complete first-aid kit
• Thermal blanket
• Change of clothes
• Two large towels