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November 02, 2012
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Tom Burrell Patrolling the Waterways
with Tom Burrell

3 reminders for operations in flooded environments

We cannot prevent natural disasters with police work — we can only respond to them — and this is something we are not used to

The East Coast is still suffering the effects of Hurricane-turned-Superstorm Sandy with unprecedented damage from the Carolinas to Maine. Earlier in the week, a British Columbia earthquake caused a tsunami warning to be issued in the Upper Northwest and California.

It’s been a little more than a year since I shared some thoughts on preparing yourself for response during a flood in an article I penned following a series of devastating storms that had ravaged many areas of the nation. I’m sure that some officers still failed to recognize the potential, thinking that last year’s storms were so unusual they belonged in the “once-in-a-career” column.

Unfortunately, just as history is destined to repeat itself so is Mother Nature.

Knowing the Basics
It is no longer a question of “if” you should be prepared for a flood emergency but “when” you will need to be. Let’s take a moment to recap three basics.

1.) Am I seeing the whole picture? Many of us have developed the ability to respond to the most heinous accidents or bloodiest crime scenes without being drawn in by the gore. This ability to avoid tunnel vision allows us to recognize potential dangers as we respond, be it a waiting adversary or oncoming traffic.

But can you do the same thing when devastation is so widespread that it encompasses blocks and blocks of your jurisdiction — maybe even your own home?

2.) What are the most likely threats? If your area was hit by last year’s storms, did you pay attention to what areas were most effected and how?

Have you also paid attention to how reconstruction — and the potential changes which may have been created in them — will be impacted by a new storm? Just as you pay attention to how new road way construction or residential developments will impact your local criminal activity, speeding or response time you need to incorporate these same changes into you flood plan.

A new housing development in what was once a rural farm field could mean dozens of new flood victims miles from the nearest rescue units.

3.) What are my action plans? First and foremost, you need to have made plans. If your department has a flood-response plan you need to be as familiar with it just as you would be is one dealing with active shooters.

If your department does not have a flood-response plan then you need do two things. First, try to convince those higher up that one is needed. Second, until one is developed, you have to have your own.

Know what you are going to do when you turn onto River Road and find an actual River.

Different and Difficult, but Doable
Disaster response can be difficult for officers and even department leaders to address. Unlike burglary sprees or an increase in driving under the influence accidents, we cannot solve the problem with increased patrols or a new tool.

We cannot prevent natural disasters with police work — we can only respond to them — and this is something we are not used to. But we owe it our citizens, our families, and ourselves to make sure we’re ready.

The bottom line is that flood response is no longer restricted to those within the traditional danger areas it is a possibility for any one. Furthermore, just as with any officer survival issue, successful flood response includes not only planning but also mental preparedness.

You have to admit to yourself that someday you will find yourself in deep water.


About the author

Tom Burrell began his career in maritime enforcement in 1992 when he enlisted in the U.S. Coast Guard, following his service in the USMC Reserves during Desert Storm. He would see service in Key West, (Fla.) Norfolk, Va., and New York City, both afloat and ashore with duties which ranged from drug and alien interdiction to recreational boating safety. During this time he would serve in a variety of positions including boarding team member, boarding officer, boat crew, coxswain, and master helmsman. Achievements include Coxswain “C” School Honor Graduate, numerous Humanitarian Service awards and involvement in several high profile joint operations — including the security for JFK International Airport during the United Nations 50th Anniversary.

In 1997 he left the USCG to pursue a position with the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission as a Waterways Conservation Officer, a position which would include posting in both the rural north central region, and later in suburban Philadelphia. In 2002 he was promoted to patrol supervisor for the South Central Region and received the PA DUI Association “Top Gun” Award for his efforts in apprehending boaters who were under the influence of alcohol or controlled substance. Tom is currently a Captain assigned to Headquarters. He is also an instructor in the areas of firearms, hand gun retention, handcuffing, OC spray, First Aid & CPR, and Boating Under the Influence Detection/Apprehension.

In 2006 Tom received his Associate’s Degree in Criminal Justice from Harrisburg Community College and in 2010 a Bachelor’s Degree from Penn State University. In 2007 and 2008 he was granted the opportunity to address the Northeast Association of Criminal Justice Sciences, during their annual conference at Roger William’s University in Bristol (R.I.), concerning the unique search and seizure authority of conservation officers. When not working or going to school Tom enjoys hunting and fishing near his home in south central Pennsylvania and spending time with his wife Amy, daughters Paige and Johanna, and son Ben.





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