Fatality Investigation: Police Officer Drowns in Flood Waters

Nov. 29, 2018
A police officer dies after driving off the road into flooded area.

The Kentucky Fatality Assessment and Control Evaluation (FACE) Program is tasked with investigating fatalities and making recommendations to ensure they do not occur again. This is one of their recent cases.

On Friday, March 2, 2018, at approximately 9:17 p.m., a police officer (the victim) was patrolling a road near the end of the city limits, when he drove his vehicle into floodwater that had overtaken the road. The officer radioed dispatch that he had driven his 2015 Ford Explorer off the road and needed a tow truck. Dispatch stated the officer was calm as he made the initial request.

Two minutes later, at 9:19 p.m., the officer placed another call to dispatch, stating that his vehicle was sinking into the water very quickly and that he needed a rescue. The dispatcher stated the officer sounded panicked as he made the second request. A teenage witness who lived nearby stated he saw the officer climb onto the top of his vehicle and that the officer told him to stay back and not to enter the water.

Five minutes after the first call, the water completely submerged the vehicle. The witness stated he saw the officer jump from the top of the vehicle and into the water, but never saw him resurface. Strong currents pulled the victim and his vehicle several hundred feet from where he entered the water. At the time of the incident, the victim was wearing his duty belt that weighed approximately 30 lbs. and a Kevlar vest weighing approximately 10 lbs. The weight of the officer’s equipment as well as the shock of entering the cold water likely added to the difficulty of swimming against the current.

When interviewed, the police chief stated he was not sure why the victim was in that area since it had been flooded for several days due to heavy rain. The victim had worked the night before the incident from 7:00 p.m. to 7:00 a.m., and the chief felt sure that he was aware of the flooding in that area. When interviewed, the incident commander stated that because it was a Friday night, and because teenagers frequented the street to party, the officer might have been patrolling the area to look for underage drinking. As he traveled on the road, the victim crested a hill and drove approximately 500 feet before his vehicle struck and entered the water. As water submerged the vehicle, it slowly drifted towards the driver’s side off the road and into the flooded field. Due to the limited light, it is likely the officer was unaware that the terrain he had entered quickly sloped downwards, creating a pool of water approximately 12-15 ft. deep.

Additional officers, as well as the Fish and Wildlife rescue dive team were on-site by 9:24 p.m., and at 9:33 p.m., incident command was established. The Fish and Wildlife dive team entered the water and discovered the vehicle approximately 150-200 yards from where it had entered the water. The vehicle was discovered on its side before swift waters rolled the vehicle onto its top. Due to strong underwater currents, the rescue diver could only dive to a depth of 12 ft. at the time, making it difficult to locate the victim. In order to locate the victim, the dive team had to drag the surrounding area. The dive team worked through the night in an attempt to recover the victim. At 5:10 a.m., the officer was located and brought to shore where the coroner on the scene pronounced him dead.

Contributing Factors and Recommendations

Occupational injuries and fatalities are often the result of one or more contributing factors or key events in a larger sequence of events that ultimately result in the injury or fatality. NIOSH investigators identified the following unrecognized hazards as key contributing factors in this incident:

• Weather
• Lack of physical barrier to flooded area
• Insufficient roadside lighting
• Possible overdriving of the headlights

Recommendation #1

County road department should install a roadway sign that warns of quick flooding during rain and close the road as quickly as possible with temporary barricades.

When questioned why there were no barriers to prevent vehicles from accessing the area, the chief of police stated the reason was that boaters would use the natural downward slope of the road to launch their boats into the water while the road was flooded, since the permanent dock for launching was under water and inaccessible. At the time of the incident, the only signage warning drivers of floodwaters was a permanent sign stating “Water Over Roadway”; however, since the sign was permanent and not removed during the dry season, it may have been easy for drivers to become complacent and ignore the sign. After the incident, two orange barrels holding a removable sign stating “Road Closed” was placed on the road blocking access to the water. The sign, however, was small and lightweight, and a driver could easily move the sign in order to obtain access to the water. To prevent all vehicles from entering the flooded area, the county road department should consider installing a roadway sign that warns of quick flooding during heavy rains and close the road as quickly as possible with temporary barricades when the road becomes impassible.

Recommendation #2

City government should consider installing streetlights approaching the flood plains.

The area had no streetlights or security lights beyond the subdivision making it difficult to see if water was over the roadway. Local electric companies were contacted and asked what the requirements or guidelines were for installing streetlights. The companies responded that the city government makes the determination for where streetlights are used, and once purchased, they could easily be installed wherever the city deemed necessary. By installing streetlights or security lights on the approach to the flood plain, drivers would be more likely to see if the roadway was flooded. Installation of streetlights or security lights also promotes security and increases the safety of pedestrians, particularly that of children who may live and play in the area.

Recommendation #3

Employers should ensure each employee is aware of areas that flood during rainy season.

The chief of police stated he personally took new employees around the area and showed them the fields that are prone to flooding. Annual retraining and pre-shift meetings reminding employees during the rainy months of potential high water areas would refresh employee’s awareness of the potential danger during the flooding season and areas to avoid. This is a very small department and the other officers employed are very familiar with the areas that flood during the rainy season. The victim was not from the local area and this was the first rainy season of his employment. The department should consider placing a map of their jurisdiction in a common area of the department that highlights which roads that are closed due to high water and task an officer with updating the map as water levels rise and fall.

Recommendation #4

Employees should never overdrive their vehicle’s headlights.

Overdriving headlights is defined: “where a driver is moving at a rate of speed that their stopping distance is farther then their headlights, creating a dangerous driving environment.” The speed of this road was 25 mph; the officer’s actual speed is unknown.
The 2015 Ford Explorer weighs approximately 4,800 lbs., and if using low beams, a driver would have 180 feet of vision. If the officer was using the vehicle’s high beams, he would have had 350 ft. of vision. At a speed of 25 mph, the vehicle was moving at a rate of 36.67 ft. per second. If the officer was travelling at the speed limit, his thinking distance – the distance the vehicle travels in the time it takes the driver to see the hazard, decides to brake and actually apply the brakes and is directly proportional to speed – measured at one second was 37 ft. The officer’s braking distance – the distance the vehicle travels while the brakes are applied and is proportional to speed squared, was 31 ft. The equates to a total stopping distance of 68 ft., well within the sight of both the vehicle’s high and low beams.

About the Author

DeAnna McIntosh | Safety Specialist

DeAnna McIntosh currently serves as the safety specialist for the Kentucky Fatality Assessment & Control Evaluation (FACE) Program within KIPRC. With a focus on prevention, her reports analyze a variety of contributing factors to each case, and subsequently make prevention recommendations centered on administrative controls, environmental controls, PPE use and existing safety regulations.

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