A couple years ago, an officer in Alaska found herself stuck outdoors waiting out a suspect who had holed up beneath a house.
As part of Officer Gwen Grimes’ baselayer of cold weather wear, she usually dons a light duty glove. But even with the gloves, the negative 40 degrees Fahrenheit atmosphere, duration of the call and the chill of her hands pressed against her duty firearm resulted in her hands stuck in place due to cold. “My hands were just locked,” Grimes says. “I couldn’t use them. I didn’t realize I was so cold until I was done with the call and then I realized I couldn’t use my hands functionally.” Had she known that she’d be standing outside for 45 minutes, she says she would have grabbed her sub-zero gear, such as her heavy-duty gloves. But when duty calls, even in a region where there’s extreme weather, there may not be time for an officer to take an extra minute to protect oneself. Heat or cold relief solutions need to be easily accessible and at the ready.
The United States covers a range of climates over its 3.8 million square miles of land. Within these regions, law enforcement officers face challenges when gearing up for the patrol day (or night) and weather has a lot to do with the comfort level an officer feels throughout the shift. Heat and cold extremes create circumstances an officer must address on the regular. Officers in two opposing weather extremes—in northern California and the northern-most tip of Alaska—share the trials and tribulations with their respective climates, from the balmy to the bitter cold.
On duty in Alaska
To experience the coldest climate on American land, one must travel up to the top of Alaska, where it regularly dips to temperatures far into the negative double digits during its most biting winter months. The area’s combination of extreme cold and high winds make for a chilly—and dangerous—combination. Especially for the law enforcement officer on duty who must respond to a variety of regular calls. From domestic disturbances to wild animal calls, any trip out of the station is an icy one.
Grimes, with the North Slope Borough for six years, is the lone officer on call when she flies in for her two-week-long shifts at the remote village of Atqasuk, Alaska. As the only officer on duty, she’s responsible for heading out of the station (which doubles as living quarters for the officer on duty) in any weather condition. In August, the weather is moderate, with temperatures lingering around the 40s. But in the cold winter months, temperatures drop to a biting negative 60, which can get nearer to negative 80 degrees with wind chill. “Exposure is probably our highest concern because as soon as you step out of the vehicle, even just to go from the vehicle to the house, you’re exposing yourself to that extreme cold,” Grimes explains.
It’s not uncommon to get frostbite on your cheeks, ears and fingertips in that area of the nation, Grimes says. To prepare for the bitter extremes of Alaskan patrol, grabbing a heavy hat or balaclava on the way out can be the difference between a comfortable evening and a frostbitten face (ouch). But the key to staying warm out on calls is layering, Grimes says. Her cold weather call-out wear includes two pairs of socks (acrylic and wool), thermal underwear beneath her uniform, a parka, skull cap and light duty gloves. The officers are also issued coveralls to wear when using the snowmobile. “We wear parkas and we layer up with thermal gear and we have exterior vests that we wear. And we try to keep most everything on the outside so that we don’t have to dig through pockets.”
Grimes says there are a few musts for the cold weather gear in Alaska. She swears by her favorite hat, a black one made of beaver skin, worn with the fur on the inside. She says a hat that covers the ears, cheeks and top of the head down to the nape of the neck is important, as those areas are most prone to frostbite in the deep temperature drops of the North. Another consideration is an article or layer between the face and the cold air. Any gear with neoprene in it is usually dependable for warmth, Grimes adds. And finally, products (even off-brand) that have a wind barrier are key, “because that is what kills you up here, when the wind bites through you.”