Police chief: Safety first this winter

FAIRMONT — With recent subzero temperatures and a dusting of snow on the ground, winter has officially set in.

While some may dread it, many others look forward to the unique outdoor opportunities. However, it does us all well to follow basic safety guidelines, and Fairmont Police Chief Mike Hunter has some timely pointers.

“One of the first recreational things we see out on the ice is ice fishing,” he said. “The Department of Natural Resources recommends that there be at least 4 inches of ice for a person to be out there, and 5 inches for snowmobiles. For vehicles, we like to see at least a foot, and then a large vehicle, we like to see over a foot to 15 inches.”

Hunter also shared safety information for ice fishing houses.

“For the most part, a lot of people have CO2 detectors in their ice fishing houses for their heaters,” he said. “We just recommend that the batteries are changed out when they first get out there on the ice, and that will help keep them safe. We also suggest that after the first of the year, people change the CO2 detectors in their houses as another safety precaution.

“We also get a lot of questions about what is and is not safe for space heaters,” he stated. “People sometimes try to run those 24 hours a day, and we recommend just using them sparingly as additional sources of heat. They should also make sure that the areas around them are clean and clear of any additional items or garbage that may get hot or catch fire during that time.”

Snowmobiling can be another fun activity, but Hunter says it is important for people to be mindful of city ordinances.

“We have a lot of questions about that as we start to see snowmobiles out around town,” he said. “The short version is that, according to chapter 16 of our Fairmont City Code, snowmobiles cannot be driven in town unless under certain conditions, such as being driven to and from the residence or where the snowmobile is stored, to the trails or heading out of town in a direct manner. They have to be driven on the far right-hand portion of the lane used by traffic in the same direction, and it would be unlawful for two snowmobiles to be riding side by side on any street or alley in the city of Fairmont.

“We get a lot of questions about where they can and can’t ride,” he continued. “They may go to and from the lakes, but they can’t drive on or cut across private property. That generates a lot of complaints because some people coming up from the lakes cut across lawns, sidewalks or boulevards and they need to stay off of those.”

Hunter states that, thankfully, complaints on snowmobiles have gone down over the years, which he attributes to the educational aspect.

“A lot of the younger riders are required to go through the snowmobile safety course that’s offered here in Fairmont,” he said. “We’ve got a great group of instructors that help the youngsters learn to be safe and responsible snowmobile riders. I think that’s helped over the years to bring those complaints down.”

Of course, no winter safety reminders would be complete without mentioning vehicles on the road. Fortunately, Hunter notes that it doesn’t take long for most people to remember safe habits after the snow falls.

“After the first snowfall or two, people get back used to driving in a safe manner on the roads, and a lot of that starts before you even leave your driveway, such as making sure you have good tires on your vehicle, making sure your windows are clear and free of any ice or snow,” he said. “Sometimes we’ll see somebody driving along with a small square scrapped out of their windshield instead of letting it totally defrost, so they may get stopped and talked to about that. It also seems like once in a while we have to remind people to not hit the auto-start in the garage to get the car warmed up; they need to make sure it’s outside before doing that.

“We also always suggest having that cold weather safety kit available in the vehicle,” he said. “That means extra blankets, extra socks, extra hats and mittens and some small food items. With cell phones today, it’s not so much that you’re not going to be able to contact somebody but rather that it might take a while for somebody to come get you out.”

Hunter notes that if people do go in the ditch and the car is still running, they should make sure the exhaust area is clean and free of snow so there is no risk of carbon monoxide buildup inside the vehicle. He also states that people should remember not to let vehicles idle unattended.

“Have a second set of keys, lock your doors,” he said. “We’ll still see a lot of times people let it run and go into the gas station or their house and leave it the door open, which leaves open an opportunity for someone to take the vehicle. Or if you leave your kids in it, they could accidently knock it out of gear or something like that.”

Hunter said the majority of vehicles stolen during his time in law enforcement have been crimes of opportunity, where vehicles were left idling.

He also noted that people should not rely on all-wheel drive to stop a vehicle, and that people should take extra time to get where they need to go when roads are slippery.