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Blog Archive: December 2016








​It's a dog's life in the State Patrol's K-9 unit

Dec. 29

Dogs are great, aren’t they? Loving. Loyal. Fun to play with. And some of them also make fantastic state troopers. The furry members of the Minnesota State Patrol’s K-9 Unit can smell more keenly and fit into tighter spots than any human, so they make great partners and are ideally suited to their job: searching loaded semi-trailers for drugs.

​Photo: A trooper and his K-9 put on a demonstration for a crowd at the State Fair.
But not just any dog can do the job, so how does the state patrol find the right ones? In terms of breeds, trainers generally prefer the Belgian Malinois, which look a lot like German Shepherds to the untrained eye. The breed is described by the American Kennel Club as being smart, confident, and hardworking — exactly the characteristics one would want in a K-9 trooper. K-9 trainers also look for specific “drives” — that is, the natural urges the dog is born with. A good K-9 trooper needs four: the hunt, air scent, retrieve, and prey drives.
Once a dog is found with all four of those drives, they’re thoroughly tested. The handler will look for whether the dog searches for any and all objects they’re first shown, and they must use their nose to hunt for them, rather than their eyes. They must also stay focused on the hunt for the objects, regardless of the environment they’re hunting in. 

The dogs are also tested on perseverance and overcoming conflict. In other words, if a dog gives up easily when it’s hard to find an object, or if they can’t figure out how overcome any obstacles that are preventing them from getting the object, they’re probably not right for the job. The K-9 unit needs goal-oriented dogs that want the reward object more than anything else around them.

As you can imagine, K-9s must also be very smart. They have to be able to learn quickly — that makes things a lot easier for their trainers in the long run. But they also have to have a very stable character, be sociable with people, and have good temperaments.

Selecting exactly the right dog is hugely important to the State Patrol K-9 Program’s success, and they have 23 years of experience. The program was started in 1993, and they’ve been training their own dogs since 2004.

The 12 K-9s in the program will soon get more coworkers: The program plans to add three new K-9 teams (a dog and a handler) in 2017. 

So next time you give your pup a pat, think about the hardworking dogs of the State Patrol K-9 Program and their human handlers out there on the roads, keeping you both safe.



The very special reason Trooper Mitch Elzen is getting drunk drivers off the road

Dec. 22

Mitch Elzen and his three siblings never ran or played with their dad. Mitch and his brothers were wrestlers, but their dad never wrestled with them. No basketball games in the driveway. No games of tag in the yard. That’s not to say Ron Elzen didn’t want to roughhouse and play sports with his kids. He just couldn’t.

Photo: ​Mitch Elzen decided to become a Minnesota State Trooper because his Dad, Ron, was hit by a drunk driver 35 years ago.
That’s because, 35 years ago, Ron and his wife were standing on the side of Highway 100 looking at the damage from a minor fender-bender when a flatbed truck with a drunk driver at the wheel hit Ron at 55 miles per hour. Ron flew 180 feet, breaking his hip and back and shattering his right ankle.

The long-term effects of this driver’s decision to drive drunk have been profound for Ron and his family. “I’ve had 25 surgeries,” says Ron. “I’ve had seven hip replacements. Because of a fused ankle on one side and a bad hip on the other, I’ve worn out my lower back and had a back fusion. My last hip replacement ended up getting staph infection—the worst staph infection you can get—and ended up getting hospitalized in intensive care for four weeks.”

“It brings tears to your eyes,” says Ron’s oldest son, Mitch. “He went through many, many surgeries from this crash from a drunk driver, and countless days sitting on a couch doing rehab, just to try to get his muscles to grow back so he could actually walk again.”

But watching his dad suffer spurred Mitch to action: “Listening to that story, it inspired me to become a State Trooper. I became a State Trooper to take drunk drivers off the road and save other families.”

And Mitch does exactly that. “I work Dog Watch, which is the overnight shift,” Mitch explains, “and my primary role is to take impaired drivers off the road. Whether it’s alcohol or drugs, my primary responsibility is to put people in jail who decide to drink and drive.”

For Mitch, the reason is very simple: “I’m very passionate about arresting drunk drivers and impaired drivers because I don’t want to see another innocent family go through what my dad, what my mother—even all of us siblings—had to go through.”

In fact, when asked what he would tell a person who drives drunk, Ron chokes up a bit and has to pause to collect himself: “You don’t know how much you are hurting somebody. How much pain. What you put that person through. What you put their loved ones through. You put them through so much pain. And it’s not fair, just because you could not control your night. You can’t imagine the suffering that family goes through.” 

Mitch has arrested over 100 drunk drivers so far this year, a fact that makes his dad very proud: “By the fact that he has taken that many drunks off the road—that’s making our roads so much safer for families. He’s protecting a lot of innocent families, especially with children in the car. He’s saving a lot of people. I’m very proud of him for that.”

And this holiday season, Mitch isn’t alone: Officers, deputies, and troopers from more than 300 agencies are helping get drunk drivers off the road so that everyone make it home safely. Extra DWI enforcement patrols are now on Minnesota roads through Dec. 30.


Have damages from September's flooding? Read this

Dec. 19

If you had first-hand experience of last September’s torrential rain and the flash flooding that followed, you probably don’t want to be reminded about the flood waters rushing into basements, destroying furnaces, water heaters, and even foundations. But as temperatures plummet around the state, having intact walls and foundations and working heating systems is more important than ever

​Photo: If you have damages from September’s flooding, you may qualify for Individual Assistance from FEMA. Visiting a Disaster Recovery Center is one way you can apply.​
Fortunately, seven counties have been granted with Individual Assistance from the Federal Emergency Management Association (FEMA): Blue Earth, Freeborn, Hennepin, Le Sueur, Rice, Steele and Waseca. That means if you’re a homeowner, renter or business owner in one of those counties and have damages from the flooding, federal money is available to help you on the road to recovery. It’s important that you register with FEMA as soon as possible to see if you qualify for Individual Assistance aid.

Individual Assistance comes in the form of grants and does not need to be repaid. It can include reimbursement for temporary housing and basic expenses, along with repairs of damages to items like furnaces and water heaters, and replacement work on damaged structures. There are a several different ways to apply for the funds before the Jan. 30, 2017 deadline:
There are a couple of things to remember about Individual Assistance. First, making a claim with your insurance (if you have flood coverage) will not automatically sign you up for disaster assistance. You’ll need to do both. Second, when you’re ready to register for Individual Assistance, you’ll want to gather the following information so your application doesn’t get denied:
  • Your Social Security number.
  • The address of the damaged primary residence.
  • A description of the damage.
  • Your insurance information, including policy number.
  • Your current telephone number.
  • Your mailing address.
  • Your bank account and routing numbers for direct deposit of funds.
Individual Assistance exists so that struggling families and business owners can get back on their feet after a disaster. If you have been affected by this summer’s floods, be sure to look into it before the Jan. 30, 2017 deadline.


Headed out in the cold? Be sure your vehicle is ready first

Dec. 15

Last week we told you what to do when stranded in your vehicle in sub-zero weather. Today we’ll help you learn how to avoid that situation altogether. In other words, how to maintain your vehicle so that you’re not literally left out in the cold.
​Photo: To be safe in snow, your tire tread depth should be 3/32”. Keep reading for more winter car maintenance tips.
  • Schedule a tune-up if you haven’t already (and next year, try to do it during the fall, before the snow flies when they’re less busy). Be sure your mechanic checks the following:
  • Battery. Batteries really suffer in cold temperatures.
  • Cooling system/antifreeze. Believe it or not, your car can overheat in cold temperatures.
  • Heater, defrosters, wipers. Consider using wiper blades and washer fluid specifically designed for winter.
  • Tire tread depth. State law requires a minimum of 3/32”. 
  • Tire pressure. Cold air deflates tires—specifically, about a pound of pressure per 10 degrees.
  • Brakes. You don’t want to find out they’re worn by ending up in a snow-filled ditch.
In addition, be sure to change your oil and filters changed regularly. And consider a few investments that may make your life a lot easier:
  • A block heater. You can plug this small engine heater into a standard outlet overnight instead of worrying whether your car will start in the morning.
  • A small hydraulic jack. They’re safer and easier to use than the ones that come with most cars. While you’re putting it in the trunk, learn where your spare tire is and how to get it out. Check on its condition and make sure its tire pressure is good.
  • Snow tires. They’ll help your car handle better while braking, starting and turning, because they grip the road for better traction.
And before you go anywhere, check the weather and road conditions (if they’re bad, stay put, especially if your outing isn’t absolutely necessary), keep your emergency kit ​in the cabin with you, and top up your gas tank. If the worst happens in bad weather, remember that towing companies will be very busy, so you need to be prepared to wait for help to arrive.

With a few careful precautions, you may not have an epic survival story to tell – but arriving warm and safe at your destination is the better option!


The struggle is real: The ill effects of holiday stress

Dec. 12

You don’t want to be stressed out, and yet it seems to happen every year: During what should be a season of merriment and kindness, you find yourself worrying about crowds and spending too much money while shopping, tensions with family members, or travel mishaps and mix-ups.

​Photo: Holiday stress can cause distracted driving, which is even more dangerous in winter driving conditions.
And although stress itself is no picnic (or holiday smorgasbord), it can in turn trigger some pretty unpleasant stuff. For example, did you know holiday stress can cause distracted driving? Think about it: If you’re rushing to get last-minute shopping done, looking desperately for that one last parking spot, or arguing with your passengers about where to go for dinner, you’re not doing your best driving. Add to that the slippery roads and lowered visibility our Minnesota winters bring, and you have a formula for a crash. Be sure you leave yourself plenty of time to get anywhere, do distracting things before you put the car in gear (such as choosing the radio station, typing your destination into your GPS, and fastening your seatbelt), and use your stress management skills (such as breathing deeply) when stressful situations come up on the road. 

Unfortunately, the stress of the holidays can also translate into domestic violence. And again, the increased alcohol consumption and heightened emotions associated with the season don’t help. If domestic violence is a possibility in your household or for someone you know, keep the National Domestic Violence Hotline’s number handy or give it to someone who may need it: 800-799-SAFE. It’s a 24/7 number. 

So this holiday season, remember that stress isn’t just stress – it can cause other negative things. Be ready to take care of yourself, even if it means letting go of the “perfect” holiday. 


Stranded in your car in sub-zero weather? Here's what to do

Dec. 8

Every winter, we hear horror stories that are all too true about people who die after being stranded in their vehicles in very cold weather. The stories are heartbreaking because, in many cases, they’re preventable. So before you drive out into the ice and snow, be sure you’re well prepared, and know what to do in case you get stranded.
  ​Photo: It’s not unusual to get stranded in your car in cold weather, so follow these tips to be prepared. ​ 

Put an emergency kit together for your vehicle. Make sure the following items stay in your car all winter long:
  • Ice scraper/brush
  • Small shovel
  • Jumper cables
  • Tow chain
  • Sand or cat litter (for tire traction)
  • Colored cloth (such as a red bandana)
  • Blankets
  • Flashlights
  • Energy bars
Before venturing out, charge your cell phone and be sure you’re dressed for the weather. Even if you’re going from garage to garage (and therefore don’t plan to be outside), be sure you’re dressed appropriately in case something happens that requires you to go out into the elements. Inform someone of where you’re going and when you plan to get there.

If you get stranded, call 911 and stay in your vehicle if at all possible. If it’s daytime, tie a colored banner to your antenna or hang it out a window. If it’s dark out, remove the cover from your dome light and turn it on so that road crews or rescue units can see you. To reduce the drain on your battery, only use your emergency flashers if you hear a vehicle approaching. 

While you wait for help, keep your engine turned off unless you’re sure the exhaust pipe is free of snow and ice; if it’s not, it can cause you to breathe deadly carbon monoxide. Also be sure to keep snow off the radiator; otherwise, your engine could overheat. 
Another reason to keep the engine off is that having the heat on will make you warm and sleepy; it’s much better to be cold and awake. And moving and rubbing your extremities and huddling close together can help keep you from getting too cold without burning any fuel. Ultimately, remember that the goal isn’t comfort; it’s survival. You don’t need to be cozy. You need to stay alive until you’re found.

You can find more great tips for winter survival in this brochure. And this winter, enjoy the snow—just be ready for it!



Identity theft: What you don't know can hurt you

Dec. 5

When Larry started getting past due notices from businesses and banks all over the country that he had never patronized, he was confused and bewildered. He had always had good credit and was never overdue on bills.
​​Photo of ID theft kit.
​Photo: Learning about identity theft could safe you from
a world of problems down the line.

It took him awhile to connect the dots, but Larry finally remembered that his garage had been broken into while he was out of town—it was a burglary he didn’t discover until months later. But among other things, the thieves ransacked a filing cabinet in which Larry kept tax returns, which gave them access to his social security number.

It took Larry about a year to undo the damage. The first task was to figure out what to do to correct the situation. It involved talking to the police, the State of Minnesota’s Attorney General’s office, and “everyone I could find who might know something about identity theft.”

Before this experience, Larry says, “Identity theft was a concept I had no notion about or experience with.” But when it happened to him, he said that at first, “I was thinking maybe there was a way for someone to flip a switch and make everything better.” But Larry learned there is no such switch. Instead, “step by painful step, you have to track down every single detail of the identity theft.”

Hours turned into days and then months as Larry called each business at least once, then wrote down every single detail of what he had to do to fix it. It was, as Larry puts it, “an unbelievable nightmare of wasted time.”

And although the identity theft never cost Larry a dime (“Most places understand identity theft and that you don’t have to be responsible for it,” he explained), his credit score started to plummet. He had to work extensively with all three credit reporting agencies, and even then, it took six months before his credit score started to inch back up.

One of the most important things Larry did to get his identity back was to contact the Federal Trade Commission and file an affidavit with them, which included the police report number and gave legitimacy to his case. 

When asked what advice he would give to someone concerned about identity theft, Larry said, “Familiarize yourself with what identity theft is. Think about whether you value your credit score and financial status, because it could all go south very quickly.”

The Minnesota Department of Public Safety Office of Justice Programs has a web page where you can learn more about identity theft and how to prevent it.


Fire safety: The best holiday tradition

Dec. 1

Ah, the holidays: Whether we have a house full of friends and family or we retreat to a little cabin in the woods, many of us do some combination of heating, cooking, and lighting candles. 
​Photo: We can't help you decide what to get Uncle Ed this holiday, but we can give you some great tips that will help
you and your family stay safe.

And although such holiday traditions make this time of year extra special, they can also make it dangerous. Just look at the statistics from last year: From Christmas Eve to New Year’s Day in Minnesota, there were 146 residential fires, one fire death and thee injuries. And the damages from all those fires? A jaw-dropping $4.6 million dollars. In nine days.

Fortunately, if you add fire prevention to your holiday traditions, you can drastically lessen the likelihood that a fire truck will show up at your door along with Aunt Mae and her famous tater tot hot dish. Unsure where to start? Try these tips:
  • You’ve heard of distracted driving, but there’s also distracted cooking.  Pay attention while you’re cooking, and never leave cooking food unattended.
  • If you need a space heater to help heat your home, turn it off whenever you leave the room, and keep it three feet from anything that could burn.
  • That goes for holiday decorations such as lights and candles, too: Keep them at least a yard from anything that could burn.
  • We can’t stress this enough: Don’t. Throw wrapping paper. In the fireplace. The ink that makes it pretty is often toxic and very flammable, and its embers can easily float out of the fireplace and set something else alight.
  • Got a fresh tree? Keep it watered. When they get too dry, they can get explosive.
  • Smoke alarms save lives – but only if they work. Which means you need to test them and your carbon monoxide alarms to make sure they’re working properly and add fresh batteries if necessary.
By taking just a few precautions, you can ensure that the biggest thing you have to worry about this holiday season is whether you’ll get another ugly sweater from Cousin Frank. But seriously, have a safe and happy holiday season!