From balmy to bitter cold

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.”

Grimes says she can count on her ballistic vest as a primary source of warmth. The vests keep body heat in close, and she emphasizes it is an important part of her cold weather warming strategy. A backup pair of sub-zero optimized gloves, parka and boots kept in the truck ensure North Alaskan officers are prepared for unexpected lengthy calls, which is doubly important since the shift rotations for North Slope Borough officers are unique; they can’t count on back up to deliver a vital piece of warming attire.

Solo on post

Officers are considered on 24/7 for a two-week period, as many of the villages in the North Slope jurisdiction are remote and it’s difficult to get officers in and out daily. For all the villages the officers work, they must be flown in by a bush plane. Grimes explains the unusual shifts are preferred because they’re easier to coordinate, given the travel challenges. After two weeks on, an officer gets two weeks at home. The solo posts in the North Slope Borough villages are one reason why, after seeing an advertisement for an impact-resistance-enhanced winter skull cap, Grimes reached out to the company to offer extreme cold weather testing.

The Crasche hat is 100-percent acrylic, with neoprene rubber removable inserts that discreetly slip into the hat to add impact-resistance. That protection can extend to instances like slipping and falling in the arctic or added insurance during a scuffle without backup, which is part of the appeal as a single-post officer in the village, Grimes says.

The Crasche hat’s inserts are made of polycarbonate plastic and neoprene rubber. Company materials explain the inner layer of neoprene rubber traps air in the rubber itself and the large air chambers. These air chambers help cushion the wearer on impact, and help spread the force of the impact over the entire protective insert.

Grimes says the materials are part of what piqued her interest in trying the product. “I’m thinking the neoprene inserts in there might help with the heat retention, because we do use neoprene for our face masks.” (Neoprene is also the material used in wet suits to keep the wearer’s heat in.)

Grimes says she will be trying out the Crasche hat from Crasche New York later this year, when the arctic challenge of North Alaska is at its peak chill. In the present summer and fall season in Alaska, she says it’s working well.

Sweat it out in Calif.

With the entirety of Sgt. Ron Baldal’s law enforcement experience split between two large agencies in northern California, he’s been on the quest to beat the heat on patrol for nearly three decades. While officers in north Alaska are counting on their ballistic vests to keep them warm, for officers like Baldal, whose prime ambient temperature in his region is in the 70s, that trapped heat is a constant discomfort. The discomfort is enough to get officers to take off their protective vests, Baldal explains. “I call it a dirty little secret, that a lot of people—husbands, wives, moms and dads—don’t realize that when it’s really hot outside, your loved one is possibly leaving their vest in the trunk or on the seat of their patrol car.” Baldal says even with commonplace mandatory wear policies that include disciplinary action if an officer is found on duty and unvested, Baldal says he’s seen officers taking that chance both physically and departmentally because it’s hot. (He admits that he only started wearing his armor without fail after he had children.)

“There’s no denying that your comfort affects your attitude,” Baldal says. “If the weather is hot, we notice the calls increase. People are outside, they’re drinking more alcohol, agitated. Then the officers arrive and they’re sweaty and hot and uncomfortable. It’s not a good recipe for calm mitigation, which is the goal.” At Baldal’s agency, he says officers are wearing wool uniforms and high-top boots. Adding the ½ inch of Kevlar (and Velcro) all the way around the officer’s middle makes for an over-warm getup for California cops.

“People wearing body armor sweat everyday,” Baldal says. “It’s still a problem that hasn’t been solved.” When Baldal wasn’t able to find a product to meet his cooling needs, he decided to innovate for himself and created the CoolCop, a hose-and-nozzle device that directs a vehicle’s air conditioning flow underneath the ballistic vest, which traps the California heat in without escape. “The vest ... keeps out the bullets but it also keeps out the air conditioning,” Baldal says.

Baldal’s only got about eight more months of wearing body armor, but he plans to carry the torch for officers who are suffering underneath their armor into his post-law enforcement gig, which is to expand his CoolCop business to help hot cops find some relief with cooling-optimized tees and a 360-degree cooling ballistic vest.

More chill & warmth boosters

The CoolCop gives officers relief when they’re in the cruiser, but outside of the vehicle, cops are still sweating under their armor in hot climates. Steel Body Cooling Comfort Systems out of Washington state offers a mobile cooling option: Its vests incorporate reusable ice-pack-like items into a carrier, to be worn beneath the officer’s armor. The original Steele vest was designed by owner Sandra Steele in the 1980s when she was working in the protective clothing industry for nuclear plants as a sales person. Since then she’s updated the design per industry and has been selling vest systems for various uses but hasn’t yet made a firm push into law enforcement equipping. “There are a lot of situations where the heat is just unbearable, especially when they’re wearing protective clothing,” she explains. “Last year I redesigned something and [the government] tested it.”

Steele says the light bulb for the product’s use by police was first lit years ago, when a motorcycle police officer from Texas reached out to her for help dodging the heat. “He says, ‘I’m no good to my wife, I’m no good to anybody. I’ve got to be out on this motorcycle and I just really suffer.’” That call gave her a heads up that in addition to the nuclear industry, military and medical applications, that law enforcement had a need the freezing system could help. The Steele vest is “going to add a little bit to [the officer’s] girth, but it’s not really bulky. It works.” The non-toxic, reusable Steele vest system has been tested extensively by the government, with many of those human subject test results posted directly to the company’s website.

Steele says she’s currently looking at departments to continue trials of the redesigned vest under body armor.

Law enforcement can also borrow from outdoor equippers, who regularly innovate for extreme weather conditions. Once such company is Klymit, which makes outdoor vests as an option on the cold side of the weather spectrum. Klymit, an outdoor apparel company based in Utah, offers a vest made of lightweight stretchy fabric and flexible chambers that can be inflated with Argon gas to insulate the wearer. Last year, Contributing Editor Lindsey Bertomen reviewed the Klymit Double Diamond vest, calling it impressive and stylish. A version purpose-optimized for law enforcement use has not been released yet, however, the vest offered by the company can help enhance comfort and function for officers in extreme cold, like the frigid winters in the Alaskan tundra.

Equipment in weather extremes

When products are optimized for the varying weather our law enforcement faces, officers experiencing climate challenges like Grimes feel less on the fringes. “Most manufacturers don’t cater to extreme cold environments because there’s so few people that live up in those areas.”

Whether keeping heat in or finding ways to reduce discomfort in hot climates, the variety of American weather calls for special attention from manufacturers to offer options that will help keep officers comfortable on an already challenging job.

“We’re not robots,” Baldal says. “Officers are affected just like the public is affected by the weather and its extremes.”