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Floodwater safety tips for police officers

How to improve police officer safety while responding to flooding and other water emergencies


Article updated on July 24, 2017.

Water is a vital aspect of human life. It covers two-thirds 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. 

Responding to dangerous situations is an accepted part of law enforcement. 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.

Spring Lake (New Jersey) Police Department patrols the flooded streets during a late afternoon in 2005. (AP Photo)
Spring Lake (New Jersey) Police Department patrols the flooded streets during a late afternoon in 2005. (AP Photo)

After reviewing the data provided by the National Law Enforcement Memorial, 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 main considerations:

1. Am I seeing the whole picture?

First, we have to remember that flood waters are often more dangerous than they appear. Even slight rises in water levels represent a substantial increase in force. While on a normal day the tranquil stream that 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 the best possible outcome. While delaying a rescue until the arrival of a specially trained and equipped 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 robbery-prone quick mart and crime-ridden dark alley within your 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 that 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 swiftwater 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 flotation 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 rescue craft to retrieve them. You should only personally enter the water as a last resort.

If you do determine this is your only option, attempt to obtain a personal flotation device for yourself and, if possible, one for the victim to wear prior to attempting to bring them back to safety. 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 accustomed 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 not only to them, but also to the 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.

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