Our view: Winches worth a whirl
February 24, 2008
Steamboat Springs — Routt County Sheriff Gary Wall’s request for winches for each of his department’s vehicles has merit, but we’re not yet convinced the program is worthy of full implementation. Rather, we think the Routt County Board of Commissioners should support a pilot program to determine the effectiveness and need for winches on all Sheriff’s Office vehicles.
Wall has lobbied for winches on Sheriff’s Office patrol vehicles since he campaigned for sheriff in 2006. The sheriff says winches have legitimate public safety value, and we agree with him. Wall contends winches could be used for limitless applications, including pulling crashed or damaged vehicles from roadways, removing dead animals from roadways, lowering law enforcement officers down cliffs or embankments to administer first aid or tend to injured persons and freeing people trapped under or behind heavy objects.
Some fire department and Search and Rescue vehicles have winches, but Wall argues that time lost waiting for such a vehicle to reach an accident scene could be the difference between life and death.
“It’s more important for us because we’re the first responders,” Wall said. “We’re there first. It’s my intention to provide a public safety service to the people of Routt County.”
Although we believe Wall’s intentions are good and just, we also are sympathetic to some of the concerns expressed by Routt County commissioners, who are responsible for approving funds to purchase the winches.
Wall said portable winches, which fit into trailer hitches, cost about $1,700. Fixed winches installed on the front of Sheriff’s Office vehicles will cost as much as $2,500 a piece. Wall wants two portable winches to be shared by older vehicles and fixed winches to be installed on all newer Sheriff’s Office vehicles. His department has about 15 deputy patrol vehicles.
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Installing winches on all Sheriff’s Office vehicles could cost upwards of $40,000 – no small chunk of change, particularly considering the county’s 2008 budget already has been approved. Any money for winches would have to be approved as a supplemental budget item.
Commissioners also are concerned about the county’s – and thus taxpayers’ – liability as it relates to Sheriff’s Office use of winches, as well as creating competition between the public and private sectors.
If used appropriately, the winches shouldn’t pose much competition with local towing companies. Wall says deputies won’t respond to calls from residents simply looking to get pulled out of ditches. And as far as we’re concerned, any use of the winch that applies directly to public safety is a worthwhile use, not to mention appropriate for the Sheriff’s Office.
The liability issue is a bit more complex and involves conflicting legal opinions. Commissioners say they have been advised use of winches does create liability problems; Wall says they pose no more liability issues than currently encountered by Sheriff’s Office deputies who carry loaded weapons and sometimes must drive at excessive speeds.
Ultimately, we’d like to see an agreement whereby the commissioners fund the purchase of several portable and fixed vehicle winches to be used as part of a six-month test program. Wall should provide the commissioners a written communication form outlining the “limitless” potential uses of vehicle winches and how they relate to public safety. Wall also should guarantee that deputies won’t use the winches for tasks that don’t directly relate to public safety.
Reviewing the results of such a test program will provide the basis for an objective decision regarding a full-scale implementation of the winch program.