06/24/2011

Tom BurrellPatrolling the Waterways
with Tom Burrell

Floodwater safety tips for police officers

Three basic best practices — on which actual police procedures might be based and/or built — for police officers safety while responding to flooding and other water emergencies

Water is a vital aspect of human life. It covers 2/3 of the planet. We can only live a short time without it. We depend upon it for transportation, energy production and irrigation of our food supplies. It can also be deadly. A fact so recently and vividly illustrated by the recent record flooding experienced by so many places throughout the Midwest, Southeast, and Eastern regions of our country.

Responding to dangerous situations is an accepted part of our chosen profession. When others are in danger they expect law enforcement officers to protect them. Whether that danger presents itself as a deranged shooter or Mother Nature does not matter — we are expected to place ourselves in harm’s way so that others may be safe. Thankfully, I have not heard of any line-of-duty drowning incidents during the recent flooding destruction. However, after reviewing the data provided by the National Law Enforcement Memorial, this appears to be contrary to the norm. In 2010, three officers died as a result of drowning and a total of 217 officers are listed as having drowned while on duty, many while attempting to rescue others during flash floods.

While we cannot prevent any of these water-related situations from occurring, we can prepare ourselves and therefore increase our chances of returning home at the end of the shift. Here are three basic lines of inquiry to consider. Actually, these are just the starting points — take them to full introspection and investigation related to your specific patrol area.

1.) Am I seeing the whole picture?
First, we have to remember that flood waters are often more dangerous that they appear. Even slight rises in water levels represent a substantial increase in force. While on a normal day the tranquil stream which runs through your patrol area may present little more than a mild distraction, add a couple inches of sudden rainfall and it can sweep away vehicles, send dangerous debris into your path and become nearly impossible to cross.

This means that there may be times when you are not the best resource for primary response. Recognizing this fact is not a weakness, but a tactical decision designed to ensure that best possible outcome. While delaying a rescue until the arrival of a well equipped and specially trained rescue team may be frustrating, it may also provide the best chance of overall survival for all involved — including you!

2.) Where are the most likely threats?
Second, you need to know your patrol area and recognize the potential danger areas during a flood situation. While I have no doubt that you know every late-night robbery-prone quick mart and crime ridden dark alley within you zone, do you know which normally-tranquil streams turn deadly with little more than a couple inches of water? Do you know which roadways are likely to wash out and which alternate routes will remain open should this occur?

Not only can this information allow you to be better prepared as an individual officer, when shared with your department leaders it may allow better preplanning which could be utilized to arrange early evacuation of danger sites or staging of necessary equipment.

3.) What are my action plans?
Third, are you prepared to safely respond should you find yourself forced to do so? While you may not be a certified lifeguard or trained in swift-water rescue, you can learn from the training these groups have developed.

Throw, row, go — one of the golden rules of water rescue is to never enter the water yourself when a rescue can be performed via a different method. If possible, throw the victim a rescue line or floatation device so that you can pull them to safety or allow them to self rescue. When you do not have a rescue line, or the victim is too far away to reach with a thrown line, send a recue craft to retrieve them. You should only personally enter the water as a last resort. If you do determine this is your only option you should attempt to obtain a personal floatation device for yourself and, if possible, one for the victim to wear prior to attempting to bring them back to safety. You should also attempt to utilize a safety line tended by a second rescuer on shore, or at least tied to a sturdy object, to facilitate a self rescue should it be needed.

One last thing: know when (and how) to say “No.” As officers we’re accustom to telling suspects what they can or cannot do. However, when neighborhoods are flooded and families face the loss of their homes and valuables, it is often difficult to tell them they cannot return to dangerous areas to retrieve valuables or to assist their friends and neighbors. It is important to realize that once an area has been cleared, allowing civilians to return presents a danger to not only them but also rescuers who may need to return for them at a later date. Once the call has been made to clear an area you must follow your department’s protocol and ensure the area remains off limits until deemed safe.

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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