By Ken Balfrey

As law enforcement officers, do we have the right to say no in a surface or subsurface rescue situation? Are our departments and ranking officers (Chief, Sheriff, or Public Safety Directors) telling us we have to attempt a rescue? Do we have the equipment, skills, or training to make an educated, practical and safe decision?

We are normally the first to arrive at any type of incident. We know how to handle motor vehicle accidents, domestic violence calls, assaults, armed confrontations, and even fires. But, what are our roles at a water-related incident? Are they even covered in your departmental Standard Operating Procedures or Guidelines (SOPs or SOG5)?

Your department, when it wrote the SOPs, left out water and ice rescues. Why? Well, typically, law enforcement personnel respond to this type of incident the least. These situations are, however, the types of call where over 50% of the rescuers nearly become victims or fatalities themselves.

  • Will an officer attempt a rescue without water rescue equipment?
  • Many officers can swim, but can they perform a swimming rescue?
  • Can an officer stop his attempt at a water rescue once he or she has started?
  • Are officers obligated to perform a water rescue if they have equipment?

Recently, while instructing at a local police academy, we asked the recruits from 14 different jurisdictions if they had a departmental policy for water rescues. Only one department had a written SOP. When asked how many departments of the 14 had water-rescue equipment in their patrol vehicles, seven departments indicated they did. Of the seven departments with equipment, four of them had equipment (rescue torpedoes) which encouraged the officer to enter the water. Furthermore, none of the officers had received any training from their departments on how to use any of the water-rescue equipment in their patrol vehicles. Although one department did receive some training with the use of a personal watercraft, the personal watercraft does not respond to a scene until it can be retrieved from headquarters.

If there is water-rescue equipment in the patrol vehicle, is it a safe statement to say that the department encourages or expects the officer to attempt a water rescue?

Depending on the equipment supplied, the department may be encouraging a land-based water rescue. Some of the tools for a land-based rescue may be a throw bag (a throw line packed in a bag designed for water rescue, not rappelling), a life ring, or a personal flotation device (PFD). The PFD is for the officer to wear when nearing the water, in case he or she falls or is pulled in while attempting a throwing or reaching rescue.

The equipment supplied may also be a line can or a rescue torpedo. If these are the pieces of equipment being supplied, is the statement being made that the officer is to perform an in-water rescue, since that is what this equipment is designed for?

Normally, what is not taken into consideration is the individual officers ability in the water in a rescue situation. Most officers have never practiced or trained for a water rescue, let alone trained with the equipment supplied. While that lack of training has its most immediate concern for in-water rescues, it is, unfortunately, also true for the land-based equipment. To worsen the situation, temperature, both of the air and water, are very rarely considered. Do the officers need some type of thermal protection, wetsuit, or cold-water suit to perform the rescue and keep themselves safe?

If the officers do receive training with any of the water rescue equipment, is it ever followed up? How often do they receive in-service training with the equipment they are carrying in their patrol vehicles? Were they ever shown how to clean, store, and maintain the equipment?

In the past few years, we have seen personal watercraft used more and more for rescue. Several of the manufacturers of these craft offer loan programs to the law enforcement and rescue communities and many departments have taken the manufacturers up on their offers. However, what are we given as the officers operating these personal watercraft? Usually, all we receive is a PFD and some basic operation, care, and maintenance training. Typically, little or no thought or consideration is given to thermal protection, eye protection, and head protection, even though the manufacturers all recommend this equipment. Why? Is it because we associate personal watercraft with recreational use and most of the time these pieces of equipment are not used with them? Do we even inform the officers on these craft that they are liable under maritime laws for the operation of vessels?

Ask yourself one question about personal watercraft: after you take your fingers off the throttle and lose steering capability (both power and steering come from the jet pump, located in the stern of the craft), how far will that watercraft travel before stopping? A three-person personal watercraft with three persons on board and full fuel tanks at approximately 60 mph will travel 246 feet in the last pointed direction before stopping. Are we prepared to safely respond with these craft?

Equipment and training are not the only issues. On July 31, 1994, Park Ranger Paul Pytel of the San Antonio Parks and Recreation Department, San Antonio, Texas, drowned after giving chase to a suspect in a shooting incident. It is unknown whether he was pushed or fell into the river. Law enforcement personnel may accidentally end up in the water during a chase. Are they prepared for it? Do they know how to survive with their clothes, footwear, and belt loaded with a weapon, flashlight, and other heavy items?

January 4, 1998: Officer Mike Partin of the Covington Police Department, Covington, Kentucky, was chasing a suspect for DUI, possession of marijuana, and running a red light. He fell through a gap in a bridge and drowned in the Ohio River.

Another question to ponder is what to do if a perpetrator attempts escape in or on the water. Should the officer continue chase? What happens if the perpetrator appears to be drowning and is calling for help? Are we going in the water to rescue these victims? Within the past few years, I have seen many such cases.

A suspect of a motor vehicle chase, because he was driving with privileges suspended, attempted to escape into a rough ocean. Another suspect who attempted an escape by swimming out into a cold bay was still holding drugs in his hand when his lifeless body was brought off the bottom. A burglary suspect jumped off a bridge in an attempt to elude apprehension. Another burglary suspect did not care if the residence was occupied as long as it was close to water. He was confident that, if pursued in the water, his swimming and survival skills were better than most officers.

What about those people wishing to commit suicide; does your life really matter to them or do they have their own problems? How about responding to disorderly conduct in the water? A local rescue team recently responded to a call of a drunken male in the water. When the man was found later, it was also discovered that the man in question was a Navy SEAL. What are the backgrounds and training of our water rescue victims? This man could probably have easily killed any officer who attempted to pull him out of the water. The question we are left with is, how do we treat real water rescue victims as opposed to suspected water rescue victims who may pose a serious threat to the lives of responding officers?

Some answers may be to examine potential water-rescue environments in your jurisdiction. As you look, do not ignore some of the less obvious areas, such as water parks after hours, retention basins, and community pools (fences do not keep everyone out). Figure out if it is in the best interest of the department to perform in-water rescues or to stick with land-based rescues. Remember, not all officers are able to swim, and those that can swim are usually only recreational swimmers. They are not prepared to make a swimming rescue.

On April 4, 1986, a Metropolitan Police Officer, Washington, D.C., drowned while attempting to rescue a female in the water. The victim was about 70 yards from the shoreline; the officer attempted to swim to her, but drowned before getting to her and before other officers could reach him. The woman was saved. Give the individual officer the right to say NO each and every time. Officers change, as do the weather conditions, water conditions, and types of water. Because an officer performs a rescue today, it does not mean he will tomorrow.

Look at the equipment that has or has not been issued or placed in the patrol vehicle. Make sure there has been sufficient training and drilling with any departmental equipment. Keep up with the care and maintenance.

Most importantly, have a departmental policy or guideline, in writing, that covers these aspects. Consider giving each individual officer the right to say “NO” before and during the rescue attempt. Be sure that you know your abilities and limitations. Your safety is your #1 priority.

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