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Snow patrol: Working the beat in subzero temperatures

When the mercury dips deep below zero, it is important to dress properly and be sure your battery-operated gear is going to work — here’s how

I grew up in a cold-weather state. In grade school I bundled up like the little kid from A Christmas Story — “I can’t put my arms down!” — but by the time high school rolled around, some of my priorities changed. Hats, gloves, and boots became “uncool,” so my winter-wear was little more than a varsity jacket and a pair of tennis shoes.

As a bundled-up youngster I could take my time going back and forth to school, stopping to examine anything curious — “I wonder what critter left these tracks.” But in high school the combination of frigid temperatures and excessive tardiness forced me to cover that distance in a fraction of the time.

Cops today are really no different from me a few years back. The smart ones dress for the weather and can comfortably stay out in the cold for hours. They get out of the squad and investigate suspicious stuff they encounter. But the “my parka makes me look chubby” and “I can’t mess up my $50 haircut with a hat” crowd can’t get back to the squad quick enough, if they even stepped out in the first place.

Layering Works

Yes, it’s tough for a police officer to dress for the winter shift. You could spend your first four hours cooped up in a 90-degree crime scene, and finish out your shift on perimeter detail in subzero weather. Add to that the fact that your issued uniform likely came from the lowest bidder and was decided upon by someone at a desk with no real-world understanding of the effects of winter weather, and you’re looking at a pretty uncomfortable day.

The good news is that the important stuff is what you wear under, over, and with your issued uniform. Layering does work, and a good layer can offset some of the other clothes we end up having to wear. For example, a good set of thermal long underwear and good warm socks are well worth the money.

If you have anything made from any amount of cotton, get rid of it. Once wet, cotton has no insulation value and is worthless as active winter wear. Stick with synthetics, wool, or even silk; these fabrics can be wet or damp and still provide some insulation value and wicking properties.

Adding some polypropylene liners in your socks and a quality wool or fleece vest under your jacket is not a bad idea either. A hat with pull down ear flaps or facemask is a must during these temps; it takes only minutes for frostbite to set in, and your face and ears are most susceptible.

My experience is that no glove will keep your hands warm in subzero weather for hours and still allow you to manipulate the items on your duty belt. Keeping the layering idea in mind, there are winter sports gloves out there that are bulky, warm and have a removable thin insulated liner. These are worth a look as you can have the warmth when you need it, but can quickly pull off the “bulk” and be left with the lighter glove when you need to take care of business.

Yes, it’s an extra step, but frozen hands are useless. Even a quality oversized mitten that you can fit your hand in with your lighter gloves on might be a good idea if you know you will be standing around a while.

Size them right and the extra room can hold a hand warmer. A quick shake of your hands can put the mittens on the ground while the thin gloves stay on your hand while you deal with equipment.

Battery Power

A common misconception is that batteries go dead in cold weather. Batteries don’t go dead because of the cold — however, the chemical reaction required for them to discharge to run a device can’t happen below certain temps. The batteries are still charged, but need to be warmed up to discharge.

Replacing cold batteries with more cold batteries won’t solve the problem — you need to keep electronics from getting too cold in the first place. If you need battery-powered equipment at an outdoor crime scene for an extended period, stick a hand warmer or two in a pocket or small insulated cooler along with your electronics and it will help keep the batteries at the proper temps so you can use them.

Consider a winter “go-bag” that can hold all your battery-operated gear. This will also let you remove the gear from the squad at the end of your shift so it’s not sitting, unused, in subzero temperatures.

Try to get everything in your electronic go-bag so that it uses AA batteries. If you need a camera, GPS, flashlight, headlamp, recorder, etc., you can carry one size of replacement battery or pull batteries from one device to make the other work. You can even get clamshell battery cases for your portable that will allow you to use AA batteries in a pinch to maintain communications should your rechargeable battery not work.

Be Prepared

The effects of cold weather can make our normal tasks much harder. When your hands get cold, it becomes tougher to operate that security holster. You might not feel the needle or weapon on the suspect you’re patting down.

Finally, watch out for the effects of hypothermia. They mimic someone under the influence of alcohol, where speech is slurred, judgment impaired, and simple tasks can’t be performed as well and you rush tasks to get back to heat.

If you work in frigid cold weather, you know this is a tactical issue worthy of proper preparation before heading out on patrol.

Patrick (Pat) Novesky has spent most of his life working in a rural environment not only in law enforcement, but also has been employed as a wildland firefighter working several states and as a guide for a hunting outfitter. Pat’s law enforcement background consists of a 20 year career ranging from positions as a sheriff’s deputy, ranger, and police officer holding assignments as intelligence officer and investigator. Pat has also been assigned to two narcotics task forces. Pat has served as a police firearms and Verbal Judo instructor and has been involved with various training for all types of law enforcement & other users of the outdoors and remote areas. The past several years of Pat’s career have been spent working as a conservation officer in Northern Wisconsin. Pat’s goal is to bring a common sense approach to issues that pertain to the rural law enforcement officer. Contact Patrick Novesky