Policing When It's Freezing

Officers working in some of the coldest parts of the country need the right equipment and tactics to cope with the cold.

Melanie Basich 2012 Headshot

Officers working in some of the coldest parts of the country need the right equipment and tactics to cope with the cold.Officers working in some of the coldest parts of the country need the right equipment and tactics to cope with the cold.Photo: Getty Images

Capt. Rick Roberts has seen his share of cold weather and found creative ways to work through it in his 22 years as an Alaska State Trooper. He was born and raised in Alaska and his father was an Alaska trooper before him, so it's nothing new to him. But it can still be a challenge, especially when you're dealing with huge swings in temperatures as he has in Fairbanks, Alaska.

"How do you prepare to work a 10-hour shift when it goes from 10 degrees below to 35 above? How do you dress for that?" asks Roberts rhetorically. "The key is layering and finding equipment that works for you."

Just Right

It can take much trial and error to find the right recipe for layered clothing. People have their own preferences, and even those can change with temperatures and conditions in flux.

Capt. Roberts says some of his colleagues forgo a jacket and wear multiple base layers under their uniforms to keep them warm on duty, but that doesn't work for him. He says when he's tried that he's gotten too warm when he needs to be inside heated buildings or even his patrol vehicle. He prefers wearing one layer of "longjohns" under his uniform—he has different types depending on weather conditions—and a jacket on top because he can take it off to cool down if needed.

You don't want to get frostbite but you also don't want to start to sweat, get wet, and then risk suffering from hypothermia. This is why most officers carry spare clothing in their patrol vehicles and/or at the station to change into if necessary. If you fall down in the snow, because of slipping or struggling with a suspect, you're going to get wet. In Alaska and rural areas where officers might get stranded far from the station or any help, they tend to carry a larger bag of emergency supplies so they can survive on their own for a few days.

It's of course also important to keep extremities from getting too cold because they are the first to get frostbitten. "Do whatever you can to stay warm: foot warmers and hand warmers are saviors in the winter," advises Officer Emily Martin of the Fargo (ND) Police Department. "The ones I normally get last for 12-plus hours, and we only do nine-hour shifts."

She also carries three different types of gloves with her on duty for differing levels of cold and functionality. She'll often wear a thinner pair of gloves under a thicker pair so she can protect her hands somewhat but have additional dexterity for certain tasks. "I have a pair for each type of situation," she says. She also wears heavy all-wool socks as she's found they keep her feet warm without making them sweat. Hats are important to keep heat from escaping out of the top of your head.

Some Alaska State Troopers ride snowmobiles on patrol, and they must wear winterized ski pants and fur hats under their helmets to protect themselves from the wind, snow, and freezing temperatures. They also must cover their duty belts to protect their equipment. Many cover them with their parkas while riding and then unzip the parkas when they arrive at their destination so they have immediate access to their weapon and gear.

"For your equipment, you have to understand your environment, and it's a day-to-day process," says Senior Patrol Officer Brian Fuchs of the Anchorage (AK) Police Department. "You could have a looser snow that's good to grip and easier to walk or run in. But then there are days where the temperature will drop and everything freezes, everything is ice. So it might be a cleat day."

But Martin says she doesn't wear ice cleats, which fit over boots and provide traction on icy surfaces. "I have fallen on the ice," she says. "I had this guy who I found out had a warrant, and he took off running, and we were both falling all over the ice. He ended up getting up and off the ice before I did and got away."

Ice cleats, which go by many different brand names, can help prevent injury, but they do have their drawbacks if an officer forgets they're on and doesn't take them off when on a different type of surface.

"If you're in a non-icy environment, they're actually more slippery than your usual boot," Roberts cautions. They're also not meant to be worn indoors. The metal cleats will scratch hardwood floors, and homeowners tend to complain. "We do have a policy that you can't wear them in anyone's house," Roberts says. "We had to spend money to replace one lady's floors."

Agencies tend to leave uniform and equipment choices up to the individual officer. When they feel they need heavier clothing or cleats for colder weather they can make that choice. "We used to have a firm date for switching from longsleeve to shortsleeve uniform shirts, and vice versa, but now it's up to the officer," says Captain Dana McNeil of the Bozeman (MT) Police Department.

Functional Equipment

Law enforcement officers must be inventive to keep their equipment functioning in severe cold weather. Many items will freeze and stop working altogether if you don't take special measures to keep them warm.

"With cold weather policing, you've got to be cognizant of what the cold will do to your equipment," says Fuchs. He checks his equipment frequently when out in the cold for extended periods of time, especially on K-9 tracks, to make sure everything is situated correctly and working properly.

Roberts says troopers will find a small black sack and keep their radio in it with hand warmers placed inside next to the battery to keep it from freezing and getting "zapped" when outside for long periods of time. Otherwise he says you could easily go through two batteries in just one shift.

Guns can stop working in the cold as well. And that is obviously a huge hazard for law enforcement officers. Lubricant can get gummy or even freeze at sub-zero temperatures, metal can get brittle, and leather holsters will freeze your gun in place. When officers can't get to their cars or other places to keep their equipment warm, they need other fixes.

"I make sure I put a good coat of silicone inside my holster," says Fuchs. "And I try to do a half-draw if I'm in the cold for an extended period of time," so the retention system won't prevent him from drawing the weapon from the holster when he needs to.

Fuchs also wraps his flashlights, which he calls an Alaskan officer's best friend, with hockey friction tape so the metal tube won't stick to his skin and burn him if he touches it with bare hands.

Most officers rely heavily on their vehicles to keep themselves and their gear warm and operational, but this is not foolproof either. Alaska State troopers now mostly drive SUVs instead of the sedans they used to have. Roberts says one of the main reasons for the switch is that equipment kept in the trunk of a sedan freezes. With an SUV, the equipment sits in the interior cabin of the vehicle where the heating can reach it and keep it at operational temperatures.

"Do you want to put a bandage on someone's wound if was in your trunk and could be negative 35 degrees?" Roberts says with the older patrol vehicles it could very well happen.

Vehicles are important "equipment" as well. And they need to stay operational at all times. One adaptation for the cold is a snap-on grille cover that keeps too much outside cool air from flowing inside and overcooling the engine as the car is running. While in most areas keeping the engine block cooled off is the concern, in colder environs the concern is the engine block freezing up. This adjustable cover solves the problem.

"We leave our cars running a lot," says Roberts. "And we might not have enough troopers for an area, so they'll rotate being on call every day. They'll leave their cars running in their driveways for hours, maybe days." He says the agency installs safety features so they can run the cars without the key in them. Programmable autostart functions allow them to keep the car engine at an operational temperature over long periods of time without wasting fuel.

"You want your trooper to be able to get to you, and if the car won't start it's hard to make that happen," says Roberts.

Adapting Tactics

Clothing and equipment can only do so much to help officers working in the cold. They must also adapt many of their tactics.

"Staying warm can be a challenge," says McNeil. "If you're working a wreck, you use your car. But if it's a longer event, you might have to rotate personnel to places that are warm."

This can be extremely important when working perimeters or on long standoffs. A steady rotation to keep officers warm enough and tactically focused is essential. "You can't damage their ability to focus on their job," says Fuchs.

"The coldest I have ever been was on a callout for a tactical team," says McNeil. "We were surrounding a building and had to hold the perimeter for days. We had to let the vehicles run and blow hot air to where we were trying to hold behind cover."

Day-to-day tactics need to change as well. Officers need to be aware of the safest places to park and take into account the surfaces they're dealing with: snow, ice, and in between. "When I do the approach on a traffic stop, I slow down and am careful because it's super icy, and falling in the snow in the middle of the street is never fun," says Martin.

Arrest tactics also may need to be adjusted. "I know in Arizona officers worry about proning someone out in the summer because they could get burns on hot asphalt," Roberts says. "We have the same concern but on snow; because it's so cold it burns."

You also don't want to lose somebody in it, Roberts cautions. It almost happened to him once. At the end of a nighttime foot chase involving multiple troopers, everyone's flashlights stopped working and Roberts and a fellow trooper found themselves wrestling the suspect on deep snow in the dark. He started to notice that the suspect wasn't fighting back quite as much. It was then that he realized he might be unintentionally smothering the suspect in the snow. "So we tried to make sure we were giving him a way to breathe—while he was fighting with us," Roberts remembers. He says he trains recruits to be cognizant of such issues.

Martin says one big difference in Fargo is the way they conduct field sobriety tests for DUI stops. "We need to make sure they don't get cold during the tests so we let them stay in our cars in between the tests," says Martin. And when it gets especially windy, sometimes reaching negative 50-degree windchill, they'll let them do the tests at a gas station parking lot or near a building that will block the wind, she says.

Different Calls

There tend to be fewer crimes in the winter. "Especially at night, when I work, everyone wants to stay inside in the warmth," says Martin. She says there is decreased foot traffic overall and there are very few fights during winter months in the downtown main bar district where she patrols. "No one wants to be out in cold, and no one wears a jacket to the bars so..."

The types of calls agencies get also tend to change when it's cold outside.

Martin says many of the calls her department receives in the winter are for people illegally sleeping in buildings they're not supposed to. she says when you find one you usually find several. But not everyone can get to a shelter or other warm place. "We look for homeless people sleeping in entryways, making sure they don't freeze to death and that they go to shelters," says Martin. "This last winter, I found a homeless male outside of a building with no shirt or shoes, and it was negative 30 degrees with negative 18 degrees wind chill. They said his body temp was only 88 degrees." Sadly, there are many people officers don't get to in time. She does what she can to get people to a place where they can be warm.

McNeil says in Bozeman there are not as many vehicle break-ins during the winter. But some people break into cars to get a ride home, when they could have walked home in the summer.

There tend to be more traffic incidents in the winter related to icy roads and other weather-related issues. And breakdowns become much more of a concern. As a shift sergeant in Fairbanks, Roberts would assign each trooper a major section of road, and twice during their shift they'd have to travel it to check for any stranded people whose car might have broken down leaving them stranded. Otherwise, it would be easy for someone to freeze out there without assistance.

Martin says Fargo officers don't usually spend much time at the police station to warm up because they don't want to be concentrated in one area in case they're needed on a call. "If someone goes into cardiac arrest, and we have to drive with lights and sirens, we like to stay spread out, because in winter you can't drive as fast because of all the snow and ice on the road," she says. "Our cars keep us warm."

Melanie Basich is managing editor for POLICE/PoliceMag.com.

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