Let it snow

On January 20, 2007, two men rode their snowmobiles near Bergland Bay. With an average snowfall of 200 inches, this area in the western portion of Michigan's Upper Peninsula is a winter recreationist's wonderland. Unfortunately, these two snowmobilers experienced one of the dangers of this popular sport. Around 11 p.m., the men rode across thin ice and fell into the water of Lake Gogebic. When Michigan State Police Regional Dispatch put out the call, Department of Natural Resources' (MDNR) Sgt. Steve Burton heard it. Aware of the concentrated snowmobile patrol nearby, he quickly alerted conservation officers Douglas Hermanson and Brett Gustafson, who raced to the scene.

When officers arrived, one of the men had managed to pull himself from the icy water but his friend remained underwater. Crawling on their stomachs to within inches of the man, the officers tried to assist him in self-rescue techniques, but he was too weak. With the temperature in the teens, numbness began to overcome the submerged snowmobiler. The officers handed him a rope, which he wrapped around his waist to keep from sinking below the water. Soon, three other conservation officers arrived and using a snowmobile ramp and rope, they successfully pulled the man from the water.

Lt. Thomas Courchaine, law enforcement supervisor of MDNR's Crystal Falls field office, states his conservation officers definitely saved the man's life. "You're fighting the clock when it comes to an ice rescue," he explains. Although it was fortunate the officers were just miles from where the snowmobilers went through the ice, the main purpose of the officers' job was not search and rescue. Rather it was safety and enforcement like many snowmobile patrols throughout the United States and Canada.

Funding snow patrol

Saving lives and enforcement are just two of the many functions of this specialized patrol. There are myriad others — it varies from department to department. Although similar in many ways, the funding, training and purpose in each department's snowmobile patrol can be very different. Funding is particularly tricky.

In many areas where snowmobilers are a guarantee, departments can easily justify allocating general funds toward a snowmobile patrol. Yellowstone National Park's 44 snowmobile unit covers 165 miles of groomed roads within park boundaries. According to Dep. Chief Ranger Steve Swanke, base operating funds finance the patrols including the officers' equipment. Similar to Yellowstone's program, Fairbanks, Alaska, funds its unit through the department budget. "The department picks up my wages, (although) a lot has been funded through grants and community support," notes Fairbanks Officer Jeromey Lindhag. Many Canadian law enforcement agencies also fund their snowmobile patrol units internally.

Wages are not the only budgetary line items. Snow machines, such as those purchased by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) budget, fall high on this list. Snowmobiles fit into the department's fleet management mandates the same as a marked police car. The Greater Sudbury (Ontario) Police Department also funds its unit this way but goes a step further granting volunteers special constabulary powers to assist officers in enforcing snowmobile laws.

For departments that cannot afford a patrol, grants can be an option. In Michigan, $1.1 million was granted to 59 law enforcement agencies in 2007 to fund snowmobile units. "The legislature found it appropriate and necessary to have some of the money from registration fees help pay for patrols," states Maureen Houghton, MDNR grants specialist. Local communities along the 6,100 miles of designated trails benefit from the increase in tourism dollars, but law enforcement agencies are affected. "If we are generating traffic and interest, it makes sense to support law enforcement and first responders," she says. The MDNR distributes grants reimbursing 85 percent of costs associated with patrolling designated routes. Ironwood, Michigan, is one of the agencies relying on grant dollars to fund its snowmobile unit.

Director Robert Erspamer of Ironwood (Michigan) Public Safety, states its annual cost is around $20,000. The 15 percent not covered has to come out of the agency's annual budget. In many cases, if an agency cannot procure the extra funds, the snowmobile patrol unit is suspended for the year. Therefore, community support is essential.

Chief Steve Marshall of the Washington (New Hampshire) Police Department says the department's snowmobile unit began with an offer. "A relative of the deputy chief offered a snowmobile and we mentioned we could use one," he says. "We told them we wanted it and it worked out." Since then, a trailer also has been donated to the department.

"If you want to be successful, community support is the key," states Lindhag, who notes Fairbanks' unit also depends on community support. This Alaskan department's snowmobiles were donated by local businesses. Youth snowmobile associations outfitted its sleds for free. Snowmobile maintenance is also free.

"Powder" training

Whether through the general budget, grants or community donations, once a department figures out the best way to fund its program, a decision regarding training must be made.

When assigned to a snowmobile unit, officers need to be aware of the unique aspects of extreme weather patrols. Machine handling and maintenance, cold weather survival and snowmobile laws are all issues officers face. Although some departments rely solely on their officers' personal expertise, many send their personnel to organized training.

Swanke states the National Park Service (NPS) personnel undertake 8 hours of training for the initial operator license. It's a one-shot deal that trains officers on mechanical components, driving skills, basic repairs, rules of the road, safety and resource protection. The department later offers a 4-hour annual refresher course. According to Sgt. Gary Lavoie of the Greater Sudbury PD, snowmobile officers receive a 2-day in-class training session as well as on-the-trail operation. "They are given survival information and some first aid, as well as, mechanical training (including) how to change belts and get a snowmobile operational again should you break down," he says.

MDNR officers participate in a week-long class that includes special procedures used when arresting drunken riders. "You have to transport on a snowmobile and ensure the snowmobile left behind is not stolen," Courchaine explains.

Although most training includes issues such as mechanics and survival, Bill Uhl, senior Instructor of OHV Training of Atlanta, Idaho, states the most important thing for a snowmobile officer to learn is physics.

"Training shortens the learning curve for officers so they can compete with the citizen who rides all the time," he says. "If you are trying to catch someone and you don't ride as well, you won't catch them. Understanding the physics helps you to ride smoother, safer and easier than the person you are trying to catch."

It is critical that officers understand how the physics works and why. "Without basic understanding, they are like a duck out of water," he states. "It's hard to duplicate what they did, when they want to do it again. The physics part is how you train the body. You train the muscles how to respond. In law enforcement, there isn't enough time to think about it."

Recognizing that budgets are tight, Uhl states it is important to tailor training to a department's specific needs. "If they are doing basic patrol, we don't teach high-speed turnarounds or how to use the snowmobile as cover for a fire fight," he says. "They really need to have in mind what they want their officers to do."

Frigid temperatures and harsh winds go hand in hand with snow patrol. Thus along with training, agencies must also assess the right equipment and clothing to ensure a safe patrol.

"It is important to research and match the snow machine you use with the type of duty you intend to perform," Strong states. "Every snowmobiler knows there is an amazing variety of machinery available and picking the right one is key."

Courchaine recommends agencies include proper identification as part of important equipment. "Make sure the sleds are easily identified as a snowmobile patrol unit with lights and shields," he explains. "We take manufacturer decals off, so people don't get confused. We paint the sleds dark and put reflective material around the sled."

Survival equipment also should be included, Swanke notes. The Greater Sudbury PD provides its officers with survival equipment, blankets, an axe, matches and a compass. NPS equips its officers with essentials as well. "Officers would transport on their snowmobiles a watered down version of what they would carry in their cruisers, including key law enforcement gear, basic EMT supplies, survival equipment, and some repair tools to fix their snowmobile or someone else's," Swanke explains.

Any equipment must be designed for extreme weather conditions.

"You have to be careful of equipment freezing up: PBT's and breathalyzers. Radios can freeze up. Handguns freeze up. It's a different environment," Courchaine says.

Officers must choose their gear carefully. A holster designed so the firearm does not freeze to the inside of it is essential. Most officers wear nylon instead of leather. Even writing a ticket can be complicated because pens freeze. Thanks to the space program, getting writing implements matched to the conditions is no longer difficult. Pens that write under extreme weather conditions exist and are guaranteed to work in ranges from -50 to 400 degrees Fahrenheit.

When selecting equipment, the movement in snowmobile patrols also must be considered. "Extra flashlights and ticket books need to be secured. Your gun belt needs to be adequately secured. We've had guys lose their guns on patrol," Courchaine says.

Along with officer safety equipment, clothing must be chosen carefully based on the conditions of the patrol. "The person needs to vary the clothing to the conditions," stresses Uhl. "They should wear clothing in which they can change the layering. They don't want to sweat and get hypothermia. Materials against the skin need to wick moisture away from the body." Swanke agrees, "Personal protective equipment is important from head to toe. You need a helmet, ear protection, a balaclava, a neck gator, a snowsuit and heavy-duty boots." Whatever clothing is chosen make sure it is appropriate for the officer's duties and fits properly.

The function of snow patrol

Much like funding, training and equipment, the purpose of snowmobile patrols varies also.

One of the Yellowstone patrol's main objectives is to protect park resources. Similarly, MDNR's unit emphasizes revenue protection. "We make sure all sleds that utilize our trails are registered and have a trail permit," Courchaine explains. "Those funds go toward grooming."

Another common objective is safety and enforcement.

"Snowmobiling is a popular sport all through Canada, especially in New Brunswick due to excellent snowmobile conditions," Strong states. "Unfortunately, with this, sometimes comes abuse, primarily concerning alcohol-related issues on snow machines."

Ensuring rider safety is also an objective, adds Lavoie. "It helps snowmobilers know we are on the trails," Erspamer explains. "It helps to reduce violator speeds. It helps the medical field because we are often the first responders.

"We rely on tourism, and it has the positive aspect of talking to snowmobilers," he adds. "The purpose is not to write tickets."

Strong agrees snowmobile patrols are an asset to public relations. "Snow machines are another tool the RCMP uses to get out to where the public is, which makes us more effective in law enforcement," he says. "It also provides a novel way for us to be seen." Education is also a common purpose.

Lindhag states Fairbanks' main objective is safety awareness. "Our No. 1 goal is to teach safety and rider responsibility," he says. "Alaska has a large amount of snow machine fatalities. Enforcement has to take a backseat. We want to go out and start with the kids. We teach them to be aware of vehicles and places which are safe to ride." Other jurisdictions including MDNR and the Greater Sudbury PD also offer civilian safety courses.

No snow panacea

There's no question snowmobile patrols are necessary, and those in winter areas where the sport is popular would be hard pressed to find any disadvantages to forming a unit. However, there are many barriers to establishing an effective unit.

"For us, staffing levels and the ability to get out and patrol is the largest barrier," states Lindhag. "Often trained officers want to hit the trails but more pressing concerns keep them car-bound."

Another issue affecting snowmobile patrol is the harsh conditions of extreme weather. Courchaine explains, "Snowmobiling is taxing on an operator. The trails are rough and they are in extreme conditions. The way our officers work, they are stationary a lot of the time. You are working at night in the dark."

"It's a little rough on a sled at 50 below zero," Lindhag agrees.

Safety issues affecting snowmobile patrols can be common. "Accidents and injuries are a barrier," states Swanke. "The potential for injury is high because riders are very vulnerable. Bison get covered in snow. You'll see a mogul in front of you and then that mogul stands up. Snowmobile-bison accidents are bad." Snowmobile officers must be aware of these barriers and have the knowledge to combat them.

What kind of advice would established units give to departments looking to implement a patrol? Like most things in law enforcement, it varies. "Consider what you want to accomplish," suggests Lindhag, while Swanke advises that agencies establish a program coordinator to oversee the unit.

Swanke also recommends agencies keep in mind that law enforcement tactics differ greatly on a snowmobile versus a cruiser. "Try to access your firearm at 45 below," he says. "It's different than accessing it during normal conditions."

Lavoie suggests developing a proper business plan to address these types of issues and those particular to the area, while Erspamer adds garnering public support for the patrol is also key. "I think it's important to stress that it's not just a ticket writing campaign," he says. "We need to work with them to make it better for everybody."

In many places, winter brings transformations. Climates alter as brisk fall winds evolve into icy winter storms. Much of the landscape becomes blanketed in snow. Outdoor enthusiasts head to regions offering winter adventures. Every year before the snow flies, law enforcement agencies meet the challenges these changes bring. Snowmobile patrols have become an asset to the communities they serve. With the proper equipment, funding and training, snowmobile patrols can protect resources, provide education, and keep the trails safe for those who enjoy the freedom snowmobiling offers. And as the Bergland Bay incident bears out, snowmobile officers can save lives.

Michelle Perin worked as a police telecommunications operator with the Phoenix (Arizona) Police Department for eight years. Currently, she is working on her M.A. in Criminology from Indiana State University and writes full-time, balancing between a small community in Michigan's Upper Peninsula and an Arizona suburb. To contact Perin, visit www.thewritinghand.net.