Protecting the pedestrian officer
LEOs rank among the highest number of "struck-by" fatalities of any responders. Could helmets be one answer to this safety crisis?
It’s uncomfortable. It’s hot. It interferes with how I move. It costs too much. It won’t protect me if____ happens…
It might be safe to assume these statements relate to why an officer wouldn’t want to wear body armor. And while there may be some truth to these utterances, the data and the number of lives saved because of that piece of equipment clearly support the logic of cops wearing body armor.
From the early 1970s to now, ballistic armor technology has continued to improve, alongside changing attitudes from police leadership toward providing and encouraging its use on duty. Ballistic vests have become lighter and stronger, capable of affording more protection than ever before. When the right people come together to tackle a problem, the result for officers on the street can be a huge boost in confidence that at the critical moment, your equipment can save your life.
We need to have another campaign like that, and it must happen much faster.
On January 11, 2020, police officers and fire department responders were working the scene of a motor vehicle crash along an icy roadway in Lubbock, Texas. As is all too often the case at emergency highway incidents, another motorist approaching that scene lost control and a second crash occurred.
Then the unthinkable happened. A third vehicle approaching the scene also left the roadway, striking two firefighters and a police officer who were working the previous crashes. Lubbock Police Officer Nicholas Reyna and Lubbock Fire Lt. Eric Hill were killed, while another firefighter sustained multiple bone fractures, as well as a traumatic brain injury (TBI).
According to FBI statistics for 2020, a total of 93 officers were killed in line-of-duty incidents. Of those, 46 died as a result of felonious acts (firearms were used in 41 deaths) and 47 officers died accidentally (12 of which were pedestrian officers). The Emergency Responder Safety Institute (ERSI) breaks down “struck-by” incidents further by reporting 63 law enforcement officers struck and killed between 2019 and 2021. Each year, law enforcement officers continue to rank among the highest number of fatalities of any responders (fire, EMS, towing and recovery, etc.) in “struck-by” incidents at emergency scenes. Those figures don’t even account for the hundreds of serious injuries reported annually to pedestrian officers performing a variety of activities along the roadway, including traffic stops, conducting investigations, deploying equipment, providing traffic control, or assisting motorists.
Dynamics of vehicle-pedestrian collisions
Of the studies that have been conducted on what takes place in vehicle/pedestrian collisions, there has been little focus on the circumstances unique to first responder activities along the highway. The data that is available from pedestrian crashes in general yields sobering information about the types of injuries sustained and how they are caused.
Several factors have an effect on injury, including vehicle speed, pedestrian age or height, size of vehicle, or type of collision, such as vehicles moving forward, rearward, or side impacts. The most common injuries reported in “struck-by” incidents were broken bones, burns, head and neck trauma, brain injuries and spinal cord trauma. In those cases where injuries were described as “moderate,” the greater percentage of trauma occurred to the lower limbs, including the pelvis. For cases where injuries were cited as “serious,” an overwhelming 80% of trauma occurred to the head.
When a pedestrian is struck by a vehicle, the impacts taking place can actually be thought of as separate collisions – the initial impact by the bumper of the vehicle (usually to the lower limbs), followed by a second impact of the body and head against the hood, windshield or even roof of the vehicle, and finally, a third impact with the ground or roadway. One study found that the main source of major head injury occurred when striking the windshield, followed by impacting the ground. Factors such as the height of the vehicle and the pedestrian’s center of gravity may determine if the individual is thrown clear of the vehicle or run over.
A major head injury, especially a traumatic brain injury, can have a devastating influence on the daily life of a person or their family moving forward. Depending on the severity and location of the brain injury, a person can experience changes in speech, difficulties understanding or expressing spoken or written language, impaired logic, mobility limitations, or other sensory or cognitive disabilities. Such injuries may require months or years of rehabilitation, or a person may never fully recover at all.
It starts with an idea
Despite the recent focus on move over laws, pedestrian officers continue to be seriously injured and killed, making it necessary to consider additional safety measures. For law enforcement, sometimes the best answers may come from sources outside of the profession. Meet Brady Robinette.
Lieutenant Robinette is a firefighter with the Lubbock (Texas) Fire Department. In the months that followed the death and injury of his co-workers, he began to evaluate one of the most basic and iconic pieces of equipment worn by firefighters for more than a century – the helmet.
The role of a helmet is to reduce the acceleration of the skull during a collision, absorbing some of the forces being transferred to the brain on impact. The soft material incorporated in a helmet absorbs some of the impact and therefore the head comes to a halt more slowly, thus decreasing the severity of damage to the brain on high-impact collisions and helping to prevent concussions on lower-impact collisions.
Brady found that although appropriate for fighting structure fires, the standard fire helmet was not suitable for protection from inbound “missiles” at emergency highway incidents. He also learned that even if worn on duty, many firefighters do not secure their helmets using the chin strap. As true pioneers do, he began to conduct research about helmet usage among fire service agencies and performed testing on existing helmet types to find which would afford the best protection. When he needed equipment for his tests, he made it in his barn. Lt. Robinette concluded that currently, there is no “roadway helmet” standard in existence that would meet the operational needs of all agencies responding to highway incidents.
One of the key elements missing from ongoing research and data collection in “struck-by” incidents is obtaining more detail on the trauma experienced by the individuals involved. In cases of fatality, the cause of death is typically listed generically as “blunt force trauma,” but it would be helpful to know if the head was involved in the trauma, along with the specific injuries to the skull and brain. This would allow for a more thorough study to aid in the design of an appropriate helmet.
However, just because an approved roadway helmet doesn’t exist, that doesn’t mean we shouldn’t find safe alternatives while engineering a solution. Lt. Robinette worked to ensure that his personnel were issued and are currently wearing a style of helmet more appropriately designed for the risks present at highway incidents.
A lesson from NASCAR
There is no secret that auto racing is a dangerous sport. It isn’t a matter of if there will be a crash during a NASCAR race, but when. When the inevitable does occur, all the engineering and safety protocols established by the organization make it extremely likely drivers exit their cars relatively unscathed. Yet it wasn’t too long ago that there was a group of individuals involved in racing that had been overlooked.
The most dangerous part of any racetrack isn’t the track itself, but “Pit Road.” This is where the cars are serviced during the race. As the car comes to a stop in its lane, members of the race team jump over the wall to quickly fuel, change tires and perform other functions to be the first to get their car back on the track. With so many persons scrambling to finish their jobs, and so many cars entering and exiting the pit stalls, the risk of injury is high. Historically, there have been injuries and even deaths to crew members struck by race cars or flying debris, but it wasn’t until an incident in 2001, in which several crew members and one race official were struck and seriously injured, that NASCAR sought to mandate helmet usage for all personnel who step onto pit road. Following the incident, NASCAR officials and team crew chiefs met with helmet manufacturers to try a variety of different helmets to learn what type would fit the needs and duties of team members. In the years since pit road-related injuries have been reduced with no deaths.
The comparison of the problem experienced and solution imposed by NASCAR to equipping first responders at emergency highway scenes is an easy one to make. In both cases, you have a multi-disciplinary response (crew and officials = LE, fire and EMS) who must focus their attention on the task at hand and not necessarily on the passing traffic. They must work with a sense of urgency in confined spaces near walls or guide rails, and always with the increased risk of injury from others who lose focus. The difference between the two is that 20 years later, law enforcement is still sending people over the wall without head protection.
A change in culture is needed
When it comes to the instant identification of a member of the community as a police officer, nothing is more traditional than the officer’s hat.
Since the inception of formalized policing, hats have been a crucial part of the uniform for a variety of reasons, including tradition, authority, professional appearance and weather. It is believed that a hat can command respect, or psychologically deter potential criminal activity. Most of the time, however, except for protection from the weather, a hat serves no practical purpose on patrol.
It’s time to acknowledge officer safety over the aesthetics of wearing a hat in patrol functions.
In the modern era, some police agencies are relaxing headgear standards, opting for a more comfortable, functional, lower cost and less "confrontational" appearance. Some permit their officers to wear no hat at all. So, with that type of progress, why should chiefs and sheriffs ever consider implementing policies that require putting a helmet on your head in certain scenarios? Because it can save lives and reduce long-term health care costs. It can demonstrate concern for the welfare of your personnel.
I’m certain it will be challenging to convince police officials to act with a stopgap solution for protecting their pedestrian officers, while also encouraging them to work with national police organizations and helmet manufacturers to design an approved helmet that meets safety standards that are yet to be developed. I imagine that it was the same type of fight that those who championed the use of body armor faced, but it’s not an impossible mission. Once leadership is on board, the next step will be convincing the rank-and-file officer that adopting a helmet for use on the highway is a good thing.
It’s uncomfortable. It’s hot. It interferes with how I move. It costs too much. It won’t protect me if ____ happens…
As with body armor, I can hear the excuses if everyone is mandated to wear some type of protective helmet when conducting violation stops, directing traffic, or performing any activity along a busy roadway. The concerns will turn toward discussions on fit, field of view and hearing obstruction, as well as the ability to enter or exit a vehicle. All are valid considerations that can be addressed when deciding what helmet style to choose. Yet despite all the arguments for wear, there will still be a few who object.
It’s often difficult to get buy-in from seasoned street officers on the need to wear anything that might be perceived as less “tactical,” such as high-visibility garments while working on the highways, but that’s when developing an effective training curriculum and policy that supports that training becomes an important goal for police leaders. Regarding hi-vis vests, the Federal Highway Administration’s Traffic Incident Management training has been able to convince some of the most steadfast skeptics of the value of street officers actually being seen. Some states also have OSHA regulations requiring hi-vis garments for LEOs performing certain functions on roadways. I have no doubt that a similar campaign on helmet usage will inspire the necessary change in our culture to protect the pedestrian officer.
What are you wearing now that will protect the most vital organ in your body? Although anything may be a better solution than wearing nothing at all, it’s important to understand the need to scrutinize all the components that make up a helmet to ensure you’re selecting the right one for you or your agency.
Features that may be desirable in certain police situations can prove to be a contributor to injuries in a “struck-by” incident. There may be a temptation for those agencies who issue a ballistic helmet to encourage its use on the highway, but like the traditional fire helmet, it is not designed for that specific purpose. A lot of the selection criteria adopted by Lt. Robinette for firefighters has similar applicability to selecting a roadway helmet for law enforcement, including:
- Impact protection: Impact protection to the sides of the head may be most important. Select a helmet that has an impact liner made of a material such as expanded polystyrene (EPS) foam instead of a webbing suspension system. How thick is the foam? Does the helmet have technologies to help address rotational forces?
- Positional stability: Will the helmet stay on the head? Does it have a 4-point chin strap?
- Chinstrap strength: Ensure the helmet is not designed with a breakaway chinstrap.
- Coverage: Area of the head covered by the helmet.
- Penetration protection: Will the helmet protect from flying debris and strikes against sharp objects?
- Projections/protrusions: Objects that project out from the exterior of the shell or into the interior of the shell should be limited and/or readily break away on impact.
- Helmet standard: What helmet standard is this helmet certified to? Many helmet standards address the above criteria.
- Communication ability.
- Hearing for situational awareness.
- Enable the wearing of eye protection or features integrated eye protection.
- Field of view: Is the field of view sufficient both horizontally and vertically?
- Ventilation: This is to ensure adequate cooling in hot environments
- Comfort: How heavy is the helmet? An uncomfortable helmet is not as likely to be worn.
- Fit adjustability: Is the helmet one size fits all or does the helmet have to be fitted to each person?
- User feedback: What is the feedback from frontline personnel on the helmets that have been identified as possible candidates?
- Performance of duties: Can all duties/tasks be performed without removing the helmet?
- Visibility for low-light conditions: Reflective and/or florescent trim to improve visibility.
- Removal: Removability is important in the event medical care needs to be administered to the emergency responder.
- Chemical resistance: How resistant is the helmet material to chemicals? Bodily fluids? Motor vehicle fuels and fluids?
- Cleaning: Can the helmet be easily decontaminated? Does it have a removable inner liner that can be cleaned?
- Cost: What would be the initial cost of the helmet and any associated accessories such as eye protection?
- Service life: How long can the helmet be in service before it needs to be replaced?
While I do not endorse any manufacturer, one option currently on the market that seems to meet most of the above selection criteria and is moderately affordable and could be practical for pedestrian police officers are helmets designed for search and rescue operations. Before deployment, it is recommended that agency leadership establishes its own selection criteria and testing standards, then performs a thorough evaluation of those helmets identified as potential candidates, selecting the best option.
The final plea
I hope I’ve been able to convince readers of the necessity to provide better protection to pedestrian officers. Short of encasing all responders at emergency scenes in a protective bubble, there is likely not one single item of equipment that will provide absolute protection from being struck by a motor vehicle or flying debris.
What is required is a multi-pronged approach that includes better awareness training, multi-disciplinary cooperation/communication, and the adoption of personal protective equipment that can enhance a pedestrian officer’s chances of survival when working on the highways. That equipment should include high-visibility garments, body armor, ballistic eye protection and lastly, a reliable safety helmet.
For folks who’ve been personally affected by a tragedy like Lt. Robinette, it becomes a mission. And who can be a better person to deliver the message than those like him, or perhaps even someone like myself. You see, I am also a survivor of a “struck-by” incident. In 2015, I was severely injured in the line of duty while attempting to assist a motorist along an interstate highway. Among the extensive and permanently disabling injuries I received was a significant head injury that contributed to permanent vision loss in one eye.
As I reflect on the series of events that unfolded on that day, I can only wonder what would have happened differently had I considered, acquired and worn a safety helmet before getting out of my vehicle. The outcome may not have changed much, given the trauma to other parts of my body, but I’m convinced that I’d still be reading safety articles like this one with the benefit of actual 20/20 vision, not just the clear vision of hindsight.
My grateful appreciation goes to Lieutenant Brady Robinette, Lubbock (Texas) Fire Department; Todd Leiss of the Pennsylvania Turnpike Commission; and Jack Sullivan of the Emergency Responder Safety Institute and Hope Tiesman, Ph.D., for their contributions to this article. For more information on highway safety, or to access online training programs offered by ERSI, visit www.respondersafety.com.
Do you think helmets would improve police officer safety on roadways? Email your thoughts to firstname.lastname@example.org.