Let it snow

Patrolling winter wonderlands


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."

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