Under fire in snow and cold: Could you help a downed officer survive?
Rescuing a downed officer from a hostile scene is tough enough under the best of weather conditions, let alone near-zero temperatures, three feet of snow, and with a hell-bent gunman still hiding in the thick woods around you.
That’s just a few of the challenges confronting U.S. and Canadian officers who train in unique field exercises in winter tactics, conducted twice a year in the remote and rugged Selkirk Mountains of northern Idaho. What they learn about their ability to perform critical tasks in cold and snow may help you survive a life-threatening ordeal if you serve in areas that are now heading toward the year’s most miserable weather, especially isolated rural or wilderness jurisdictions.
“In winter, you not only have to worry about human adversaries, but the environment itself is your enemy,” says Steven Tomson, who directs the training program, called the Law Enforcement Mountain Operations School (LEMOS). “If they’re not managed right, either one can injure or kill you very quickly — or even worse, kill you very slowly.”
Tomson, a former sheriff and municipal officer who works as the law enforcement coordinator in the U.S. Attorney’s Office in Spokane, Wash., described some aspects of the mountain school in a session on survival strategies at the recent IACP conference in Denver. Later, in an exclusive interview with PoliceOne, he elaborated particularly on the dangers and lessons learned inherent in officer rescues under extreme conditions.
The school was conceived about five years ago by a consortium of agencies that operate in the border regions of Washington, Idaho, Montana, and British Columbia, after a near tragedy involving three Canadian officers whose snowmobiles became nearly buried in deep powder as they tried to track drug smugglers across forbidding mountain terrain.
Their cell phones wouldn’t work. Hiking out was impossible. They spent a harrowing 12 hours trapped, fighting to survive through a howling, bitter night before they were finally found by rescuers.
“Being unprepared for anything, anywhere is not acceptable,” declared one of the stranded officers, Cst. Kim Bloy, in the wake of the ordeal. Unfortunately, says Tomson, agencies “routinely send personnel into extreme winter environments without sufficient knowledge, training, equipment, or experience to operate safely.”
In the apparent absence of other comprehensive training for winter conditions, LEMOS was created to address “specialized tactical and cold-weather operations,” with the U.S. Attorney’s Office for eastern Washington as point agency. Bloy, now a corporal, became deputy chief of the organization.
Tomson says that since its founding, about 200 “average” line officers have enhanced their winter survival skills through the six-day, 60-hour course, from an alphabet soup of federal agencies (DEA, ICE, ATF, BP, NPS, USMS, etc.), sheriff’s departments, state police, wildlife services, the RCMP, the Canadian Border Services Agency, and others with investigative or patrol-level enforcement responsibilities in snowy, mountainous territory far removed from population centers.
Operating out of base camp at the Priest Lake Ranger Station in the Kaniksu National Forest, teams of trainees don snowshoes and, coping typically with snow 3-6 feet deep and temps well below freezing, learn to traverse some five kilometers of tortuous terrain at a stretch, build a “field-expedient” shelter, start a fire using a metal match — “extremely difficult for most,” says Tomson — practice cover and concealment, detect booby traps, conduct day and night navigation, deal with avalanche dangers, and “basically take care of themselves for up to 72 hours.”
All this, while preventing accidents and remaining healthy and uninjured in the adverse environment.
Most revealing of the serial exercises is usually the downed officer rescue. It is here that the potentially deadly threats of cold-weather operations tend to evidence themselves in sobering profusion, along with some tactical shortcomings that could — and often do — surface even in more favorable settings.
In this scenario, an officer working alone (role-played by an instructor) is missing and possibly has been shot and is down, deep in forested terrain. Trainees, assembled in six-officer teams and with only sketchy information, are sent to locate him, provide emergency medical aid, and extract him and his equipment to a point where he can be transferred to a medical facility. The assailant (another instructor) is still at large among the trees.
Despite classroom discussion of tactics and team planning in advance, “a tactical breach tends to occur as soon as the trainees spot the downed officer,” Tomson says.
Usually, he’s slumped in a “tree well,” a crater in deep snow at the base of a tree that is kept largely clear of accumulation by low-hanging branches. Ideally, his rescuers would remain behind the cover of other trees or boulders to make an initial assessment, calling to the downed officer, for instance, to see if he is capable of moving toward them. If not, a single officer would advance to apply some immediate relief to his injuries, perhaps accompanied by a cover officer to supply suppression fire if necessary.
“Instead,” says Tomson, “the trainees all tend to hurry up to him when they see a downed colleague. In focusing on the patient, they forget about deploying good perimeter protection and neutralizing the threat. So the ‘gunman’ will then fire a round or two from the woods to remind them how vulnerable they are. There’s chaos for a few minutes, and the problem gets more difficult. Responding en masse under fire almost always results in additional ‘casualties.’ ”
Failing to establish initial contact from behind cover and at a distance carries another risk, too, Tomson points out. Caught by surprise, “the downed officer won’t know who’s out there and may shoot at members of the rescue team, mistakenly thinking they’re allies of the bad guy.”
The biggest culprit, however, inevitably proves to be Nature’s hostile forces, which is the point of this exercise. A small sampling of issues that typically arise:
Officers are told to wear their normal, approved on-duty winter garb, which usually includes a prescribed uniform that is inadequate for the weather they’re up against.
“Uniforms are not anywhere close to state-of-the-art in fabric and design for this environment,” Tomson asserts. “The biggest problem is too high a percentage of cotton. In winter, cotton kills. Unlike wool it loses its insulating quality when it gets wet from sweat or snow.” Even a 60/40 blend of polyester and cotton is safer than cotton alone, he says.
Wearing too much clothing can exacerbate the problem. “Start out light, feeling a little cold. You’ll warm up as you move. If you dress too warm, you’ll get too hot almost immediately and start sweating. If you’re wearing cotton underwear, once it gets soaked you can become dangerously chilled and there’s no way you’ll get warm again.”
Your fitness level, too, will affect your volume of perspiration, of course. Too often, Tomson says, trainees discover that their fitness is “average or below” as they tackle the elements on snowshoes. Without the shoes, of course, they’d quickly sink up to the waist or beyond in snow in many spots.
In the scenario, there are no hidden injuries. What the rescuers find in checking the downed officer are prominent “gunshot wounds,” realistically depicted via moulage. Evaluation and treatment are relentlessly affected by the snow and cold.
“Cutting away the downed officer’s clothing for better access and treatment is dangerous because of the exposure,” Tomson explains. “Patient assessment becomes very difficult as your hands get cold. With your cold hands against his body, he gets colder, colder, colder.
“The trainees are typically unfamiliar with tactical combat casualty care, which is often different from the kind of first aid some are accustomed to administering at traffic accidents. They may need to know something about treating frostbite, snow blindness, knee injuries, and severe blisters. Tourniquets, which are often discouraged in conventional first aid, are considered an essential element of wilderness care, either self-applied or used by rescuers.
“Speed can be important to prevent bleeding out, but in the cold and snow even the simplest task is harder to do. Moving quickly and facilely is tough.”
The drop of the downed officer’s body temperature to a dangerously low level is an omnipresent threat. “Some kind of insulation needs to go under the downed officer as soon as possible,” Tomson says, “or he may die from hypothermia even if you treat his wounds successfully.”
The trainees carry with them as part of their recommended survival gear insulation pads that the patient can be wrapped in and then enclosed in a tarp — “ ‘the burrito,’ we call it,” Tomson says. Jackets or tree boughs shaken free of snow may be passable substitutes — “something between the patient and cold ground, or he won’t be able to stay warm, no matter how much clothing he’s wearing.”
Even gear that officers think they’re familiar with can offer nasty surprises in a cold environment. “Batteries go down fast,” Tomson warns, “so you may unexpectedly lose the benefit of your flashlight. If snow gets into the spring-release mechanisms in some security holsters, they may not function reliably, so you can’t draw your gun. If you end up wrestling in the snow with a suspect and you have a holster with an open bottom, snow may get packed into your barrel and you’ll risk the gun blowing up when you fire.” (To prevent that possibility, he suggests capping your muzzle with a piece of Saran Wrap when you holster your gun, to keep the barrel clear.)
“So much equipment can become rapidly dysfunctional in a cold, wet environment. Yet that’s a problem that many officers have never considered,” Tomson says. Some during the exercise also discover for the first time that with gloves on their trigger finger won’t fit into their trigger guard.
Ultimately, there’s the challenge of safely removing a wounded officer who isn’t ambulatory. “That’s a lot harder than most officers think it’s going to be,” Tomson says.
LEMOS teaches a technique for placing the officer onto a poncho or tarp and dragging him out, with four rescuers pulling while two maintain security in a “bounding over-watch in reverse” formation. “It requires good coordination,” Tomson says, “because pulling a 210-pound wounded officer and all his gear through heavy snow while you’re on snowshoes is not easy.”
Small but important points to remember: Take the downed officer’s own snowshoes off before you start, or they’ll hang up…provide eye protection for him so he’s not damaged by low branches or brambles.
Before starting the training, students are tested with “very basic questions” regarding mountain and cold-weather operations. The average score generally is in the 50 percentile, “well below passing and a clear indication that they are not adequately trained to safely operate in remote or cold environments,” even though all are currently assigned to such areas and most have “considerable” law enforcement experience. At the end of the training, they’re retested. By then, the average score typically has jumped to about 85 percent.
Tomson concludes, “LEMOS is fundamentally an officer survival course that emphasizes good decision-making, risk management, self-defense, and familiarization with multiple-use gear in rural and austere environments. We focus on casualty prevention, situational awareness, and a winning attitude. We learn new things with every course we teach, and we adapt the training accordingly. But our motto always stays the same: ‘Go Far, Go Safe, Go Home.’ ”