The Hazards of Patrolling In Snow

Winter poses unique dangers for the patrol officer. Dealing with these threats is a matter of weather-proofing yourself both mentally and physically.

Author Dean Scoville Headshot

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.[PAGEBREAK]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.

[PAGEBREAK]Equipment Failure

As the advertising slogan suggests, there's a lot riding on patrol officers' tires, including the equipment that they need to do their jobs.

John Fitzwilliam, a retired inspector from the Nassau County (N.Y.) Police Department, notes that many police agencies carry oxygen and defibrillators (AEDs) in the trunks of their police cars. These tools may be the primary first aid for both officers and citizens.

"Frigid weather can cause the AED batteries to die, and other electronic devices, as well. It can also endanger people that an officer is trying to save. Administering cold oxygen to patients is dangerous; it worsens their respiratory situation and can cause hypothermia." Because of this, Fitzwilliam recommends that troopers move their AEDs and oxygen tanks into the passenger compartment to keep them warm during wintry conditions.

Steve Nelson recommends officers also make room for some other things in their front seats. "Keep some high protein food products, water, and other cold weather necessities in a go bag," Sgt. Nelson recommends. "And make sure that you keep your patrol vehicle fueled. If you work rural areas and get stuck, keeping your car engine going might be all that keeps you alive and in contact with help in extreme weather."

Rural threats include suspect terrain, as well as wildlife. As winter coincides with the deer mating season, there can be a spike in animal vs. motorist accidents.

Burnet County, Tex., Dep. Francis Blake was driving on Highway 29 when he struck a deer, causing him to lose control of the vehicle and collide with a tree, killing him.

Officer Michael Staples with the U.S. Department of Agriculture was killed when his patrol vehicle collided with a deer that'd been propelled from yet another vehicle.

Gloved Hands

In addition to all of the special winter hazards that officers in colder climes face on duty, it's important to note that winter conditions do not prevent crime. So these officers also face the dangers that every cop faces on duty and must be ready to respond to them.

Don Alwes of the National Tactical Officers Association notes that more agencies can stand to do winter training when it comes to range and tactical training.

To that end, Niles (Ill.) Police Department Sgt. Tom Davis suggests that officers show initiative in compensating for their winter wear's effect on shooting.

"If you have to wear gloves, make sure you can shoot your weapon with them," says Davis. "Many times officers use gloves without checking to see if the trigger finger fits in their weapon or to see if the gloves have a good grip."

Robert Bragg agrees.

"It's cloudy and rainy all the time here in this part of Washington," notes Bragg. "We make officers wear their coats, jackets, and gloves at the range. Even in our defensive tactics training and mock scenarios, we have them dress in the kind of attire that they're apt to be wearing in the streets. We recognize that what works well without a gun belt on, or without a jacket on, maybe isn't as effective when they are on."

Across the state line, Dave Drasin is the ICE Assistant Field Office Director in Portland, Ore. Drasin notes that winter can do more than impede an officer's performance. It can have a severe impact on an agency's ability to deal with large scale operations.

"In 2009, we experienced ice storms in the Midwestern states, particularly in Tennessee and Kentucky. DHS always maintains an interest in this for reasons of protecting critical infrastructure. Obviously, ice storms-or any real inclement weather-can hinder the protection of critical infrastructure, and can prevent an appropriate response to terror attacks or any other crime. Of course, the bad guys are subject to the same bad weather limitations as the good guys, but nonetheless, it is something to think about."

Between our physical and sartorial limitations and bad weather, any storm may become the perfect storm for tragedies.

It's best to prepare for them by preparing ourselves.


Driving In Nasty Weather

How do you prepare for cold weather duty? Tell us in the comments.

About the Author
Author Dean Scoville Headshot
Associate Editor
View Bio
Page 1 of 2325
Next Page