Winter marine unit ops: Don't be a victim of fashion

The next time you are choosing which personal floatation device to wear during your upcoming patrol, remember that there’s a time and place for everything

Because it was advertised to include a segment featuring a police marine unit, I recently tuned in to watch one of those ‘reality’ television shows about police work.

Despite what some may say, I find these shows to be both humorous and informative — these officers are often caught off guard even when they know the cameras are rolling right next to them.

Unfortunately, I was not to be disappointed.

What Not to Wear
One segment followed a veteran officer as he introduced a rookie to his first boat patrol. Before long, the rookie was swinging aboard all manner of vessels, recreational and commercial, checking safety equipment and catches for compliance. 

Next, another officer was followed as he maneuvered his patrol vessel at high speeds, past downed trees and sandbars, as he responded to a request to investigate a derelict vessel.

Each of the officers was decked out in the latest gear and was operating some of the newest high-speed patrol craft around. My initial impression was that their department had spared no expense in ensuring they had everything they needed to not only perform their duties, but to do so in a manner that would safely return them to shore at the end of their shift.

My opinion quickly changed when the announcer stated that the officers were on patrol during a bright but frigid winter day — with water temperatures hovering near 30 degrees.

I immediately began to think, “I hope no one goes in the water.”

This thought would repeat in my mind as I watched the rookie climb onto vessel after vessel, often balancing dangerously as he scrambled for a foothold, all the while wearing his inflatable PFD.

In fact, all three officers were wearing the latest in inflatable personal floatation devices over standard three-season patrol jackets.

Why was I so concerned? Shouldn’t I be happy that the young officer was setting the example by wearing his PFD?

I was concerned because I feared that the officer, should he be unfortunate enough to end up in the drink, would be a victim of fashion.

You see, while I value inflatables (and the tactical advantage that they provide), I also understand that they have a time and a place.

A Time and Place for Everything
During a hot patrol in July, when temperatures are pushing triple digits, a quality inflatable can be a life-saver even if you do not go in the water. Dehydration, heat exhaustion, and the associated stresses can be deadly. Anything which allows an officer to combat these dangers is a welcome addition to the gear locker.

However, when the temperatures dip and hypothermia becomes a concern, you must forgo trendy and return to the gear locker for the proper equipment for the mission. In this situation the young officer would have been better served — and the veterans could have set a better example — if they had selected a float coat or deck suit as the PFD of choice.

Now, hold on a minute. Don’t go firing off the “pro-inflatable” emails just yet. I have nothing against inflatables as long as they’re used as they were designed and intended. 

My agency has been supplying — and I have worn — inflatables for more than 10 years. But not when the water temperature is expected to fall below 70 degrees.

Why 70 degrees? This is the point at which you risk hypothermia and although an inflatable will provide some protection by keeping your head out of the water it will not provide the insulating protection of a deck suit, float coat or even an offshore vest.

So, next time you’re choosing which PFD to wear, remember that there’s a time and place for everything.

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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