Sergeant James Post
WORKING IN A WINTER WONDERLAND
I grew up and ultimately spent my 25 year career in the Midwest, actually about 250 miles from the geographical center of the contiguous United States. Love it or hate it, the Midwest is one of those places in our great country which experiences the full four seasons – that’s the plus. The minus is that, if you are working outside in those four seasons in the Midwest, you can expect temperatures from zero (and lower) in the winter to 110 (and over) in the summer and experience things like “wind chill” and “heat indexes” which some parts of America don’t.
Of course, it’s not just our fellow humans who experience – and must be prepared for – the four seasons; it’s our vehicles, too, which leads us to this issue’s column. Before 2019 even made it to December, there were several major blizzards (from the West Coast to the East Coast) with drifts over two feet high; subfreezing temperatures; and, of course, the requisite freeway pileups. And, much of this was in areas not accustomed to winters like I grew up with, and worked in, or coping with them.
Preparing and Protecting Your Fleet for Winter
When I began working the mean streets, my department only had two engine choices (six or eight cylinders) and only one gearing option (rear-wheel drive). Nowadays, fleet managers have numerous engine choices and drive options which look like answers to a multiple choice question: RWD, FWD, AWD, or 4WD. But, which is best for winter driving? The simple answer is the same as you’ll see in the tire section of this column which follows…it all depends on the amount of snow you expect this (or any) winter.
Here’s a good rule: If you expect over 300 days of sunshine and mostly dry streets, go with the RWD and, what the heck, buy the V-8, too! For rare to occasional mild snows of a couple of inches, FWD is your best bet because it will get you through most common winter conditions. The engine sitting on top of your front wheels will also give you additional traction, if needed. If you work in an area where winter is an actual season and you might get snows of six or more inches, AWD is the best fit. An AWD vehicle will automatically shift traction to wherever it is needed – front or rear.
If you expect extreme snow, blizzards and drifts, your best bet would be 4WD, but that’s only an option for pickups and some SUVs. Most 4WD normally operates with the rear wheels and has two separate axles which allow drivers to engage 4WD and “locks” the front and rear wheels together. Some 4WD systems have a mode which automatically engages all four wheels if slippery conditions are detected. Most 4WD systems have “high” or “low” ranges, in both 2WD and 4WD. High range (in 2WD) is for normal driving, whereas low range is for when the going gets tough, like plowing through snowdrifts or when you are stuck. Low range 4WD should never be used for normal driving as the locking front wheels will plow straight ahead through turns.
Most city departments can’t justify 4WD vehicles year-round, so AWD is the best choice, but you might have to get by with aggressive snow tires on all four corners or chains when it really gets bad. Your engine in the front will help traction on the front and you might consider additional weight (beyond what you normally carry) in the rear of sedans and SUVs for more traction.
The Rubber Meets the Road
The greatest single factor affecting winter driving is your tires and you have many choices here, too, based on your area and forecast. But, buying the correct type of tires can be confusing because names and descriptions over the years have sometimes become interchangeable. Here are some common categories of tires: touring; performance; all-season; winter, mud and snow; and all-terrain. Most police sedan and SUV tires fall under “performance” because of their high-speed rating of “V” (149 mph), and are considered “summer” tires because they are unsuitable under 45 degrees. Touring tires come on most passenger cars. An all-season rating may be seen on touring and performance tires. All-season means they are approved for dry and wet pavement and light snow, but, below seven degrees, they can harden and lose their traction. All-terrain tires are for vehicles which are used on- and off-road and are superior in mountain and severe winter regions.
Winter tires often are called snow tires or mud and snow tires. Mud and snow tires will be marked “M/S” or “M&S,” but true winter-rated tires will have three mountain peaks stamped into the tire sidewall, indicating that the tire meets the definition of a true winter tire and has passed a US requirement which sets a minimum traction standard in snow. Compare that to an all-season rating which has a very low labeling standard and will not necessarily improve winter traction. The best winter tires will provide a good grip in all cold weather conditions – whether the road is wet or dry.
Proper tire selection can be more confusing than which coffee to order at Starbucks®. Whichever style you choose, remember to not mix tread styles – all of the experts say to put the same tires on all four corners. I’ll take that a step further and recommend that all four be the same brand. That can be an expensive proposition when preparing for winter, but it is all about safety.
Goodyear®’s LE division has made those choices easier for you with their Enforcer Family of three LE tires. The Eagle Enforcer is their standard duty tire. The Eagle Enforcer All Weather is pursuit ready with winter tread compound zones for enhanced grip, while the Eagle Enforcer Winter tire is for even harsher environments. Other tire manufacturers likely have matching tires with varying degrees of applications as well.
Most police agencies don’t have an issue with replacing tires due to age, but it is possible that seldom used vehicles might have tires too old to be safe, or they may have been stored in your garage for some time. Determining your tire’s age is easier than determining a blind date’s age. Since 2000, the NTSA has required the date of manufacture to be posted on the tire sidewall. It will read “DOT” followed by 12-13 letters and numbers, but you only need to note the last four numbers which will indicate the week and year the tire was manufactured. For example, if the last four are “2218” the tire was manufactured the 22nd week of 2018. Tires should never be used ten years beyond their build date.
In addition to tread depth, monitoring your vehicle’s tire pressure is an important winter consideration because tire pressure drops one to two pounds for every ten degrees the temperature drops. Fortunately, most contemporary vehicles with TPMS air pressure sensors mounted in each wheel constantly send air pressure readings to your instrumentation. Experts recommend that you raise (overinflate) tire pressure (five to ten pounds) over the pressure shown on the sidewall or doorjamb. Besides compensating for lost pressure, this will help clear packed snow and ice from the treads.
The Chain Gang
Many of our readers are in areas where chains are required by law and they’re out of luck; they just have to suck it up and chain up when ordered to do it. If you’re using AWD or 4WD vehicles, it is recommended that you install chains on all four wheels.
If you carry chains for no other reason than to extricate your vehicle from being hopelessly stuck, there may be another alternative. Snow cables or straps have been around forever and installation was cumbersome at best, particularly in uniform. However, many newer emergency devices are designed for “onetime” usage. Made from plastic, they resemble zip ties and install the same way. Simply insert them through slots or holes in the factory rims, wrap them over the tread and tighten the strap until there is no slack. The portion over the tread contains knobs with studs, like studded snow tires which are banned in many areas. Usually, four straps per drive wheel should be sufficient. While snow chains are sold by tire size, these will fit multiple sizes of tires. There are several brands sold online or in auto big-box stores, usually in bundles of ten or 12, at around ten bucks a bundle. When you’re unstuck, simply cut them off and you’re on your way.
Preparing for the Deep Freeze
The two most common time-consuming surprises you’ll discover when you leave your home for work (after a winter night’s slumber) are frozen windshields and doors, but both can be handled with the remote starter.
But, what if your unit doesn’t have a remote starter on the fob? Let’s tackle that windshield first. If you can open the doors, get in, fire it up, turn your heater and defrosters on “high,” and go back inside for another cup of coffee.
If you can’t get in, here are a couple simple tricks to clean the windshield. For snow, use a broom, but if ice covered, you’ll need to soften it first. Common spray deicers are the quickest and easiest to use. If you don’t have one, a simple mix of three parts vinegar and one part water will work, too, because vinegar contains acetic acid which lowers the melting point of water. This is also handy for prepping the windshield the night before. Another simple concoction contains two parts rubbing alcohol and one part water with a couple drops of dish soap. This will break down the ice so a scraper and defroster can do the rest. These mixes are not harmful to your vehicle’s finishes. Whatever substance you use, store them inside at room temperature. Of course, NEVER use hot water.
Always keep ice scrapers or snow broom/ice scraper combos handy and in every vehicle you drive. A credit card can work as an emergency scraper, but never use anything metal. One winter morning, one of my detectives came into my office and reported, “Sarge, I need a new windshield in my police car.” Curious, I went outside and discovered that, because he feared being late, he used the only scraper he could find – a garden hoe! He was a great detective, but…
Frozen doors can present a real winter challenge which remote openers might not fix. These are caused by rain entering doorjambs and freezing the locks and/or the door seals to the door. Obviously, the first thing to try is to attempt to open the other doors. But, if all doors and locks are frozen shut, you’ll need other tactics.
First, we’ll attack the door locks (if they have a key opening). The first thing you can do is warm the key (if it does not have an electronic chip) with a lighter, match, candle or hair dryer, or use the hair dryer alone. Using a commercial de-icer and a straw, shoot it directly into the lock. Finally, you can use common hand sanitizer as it contains ethanol and isopropanol which lowers the freezing point of water and can melt the ice inside the lock. Whatever method you decide on, do not force the key into the lock or forcefully twist it. Never use water or lubricants like WD-40® as the grease will gum up the lock.
Assuming you now have the door unlocked, the door might still be frozen shut. You can push on the door around the edges or spray the edges with de-icer or one of your homemade concoctions. A hair dryer will work on the door seals, too. Rubbing alcohol, windshield washer fluid or diluted white vinegar can all be poured into doorjambs, too. Once any of these methods seem to be working, start to chip the ice away from the door edges using a scraper. Never use hot water as it could shatter your door glass.
We all know an ounce of prevention is worth a pound of cure, so the preferable way to defeat ice is to prevent it before it starts and it is simple and inexpensive using plastic trash bags. Place one trash bag under each windshield wiper directly on the windshield. The weight of the precipitation should keep them in place, but, if it’s windy, the bags can be further secured by opening the front doors and tucking a corner of each bag under the top corner of each front door and close them. Simply peel the trash bags off when you’re ready to leave.
To prevent frozen doors, roll another trash bag into a roll about the size of a baseball bat and place it between the door seal and the door frame. The bags can be folded and reused several times.
On the Road Again
Okay, you’ve got your cruiser de-iced and roadworthy and you’re off to fight crime another day, but how do you keep your noble transport going all shift? Your next radio call may be to block an interstate for hours, or you may be out on a foot search or on a number of other unpleasant activities. You’d like to be able to return to a warm and road ready vehicle, but is that possible? Last winter, I spoke with a Minnesota trooper who, along with other troopers, was working during a horrendous blizzard which had shut down miles of I-35. They worked on foot for hours directing traffic, checking on stranded motorists, moving abandoned cars and trucks, and more. He described it as a “whitemare” and, when they finally returned to their parked cruisers, they could not be found because they were all buried in drifts six to ten feet deep.
That’s an extreme example of winter, of course, but there are a couple of devices which allow vehicles to be left running and secure in winter (or summer) weather. The original, the Anti-Theft System, is from Tremco Police Products and your unit can be left running without a key in the ignition or fob in the car. It is activated when the vehicle is placed in “park” and cannot be driven until a concealed switch is activated. The system plugs directly into the factory wiring harness and does not void the factory warranty.
A similar system is Secure Idle and it also allows the ignition key or fob to be removed while in park. Both devices protect your expensive vehicles and equipment from theft and also your valuable K-9s in the summer.
- Check your antifreeze. Some makes require specific types, but the premixed 50/50 ratio is best in all of them. Antifreeze should last 50K to 150K miles or three to five years.
- Visibility is a priority. Protect your windshield with winter-rated wiper blades and always top off the washer fluid with a winter-rated product. Check it frequently during heavy usage.
- Check your battery for possible “dead” cells or low fluid.
- Gas tanks should be topped off when reaching half full because condensation can form on the walls inside the tank and freeze.
- After your glass is clean and the snow or ice has been cleaned from the roof, you’re ready, but the experts advise DON’T start driving until the engine is warmed up to 190 degrees.
Finally, every fleet vehicle (regardless of assignment) should be equipped with a winter preparedness kit containing the aforementioned scrapers, de-icers, tire straps, and even a collapsible military-type shovel. Because you have both officers and the public to protect, the kit should also include water, energy bars, emergency blankets, and all your other normal gear.
Sergeant James Post appreciates your comments and suggestions for future articles. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.