By Garrett Law and Paul M. Ross Jr.
Published in Fire Rescue Magazine, December, 2000. Republished here with publisher permission.
Forecasters may be unsure of what the seasons will bring, but those of us in colder climates know what’s coming when we head out during winter months. The everyday hazards of reaching a fire scene are magnified by slick streets. Cold temperatures and snow and ice underfoot complicate fireground operations and increase the risk of personnel injury. Preplanning readies your department for whatever weather is on the horizon.
BEFORE THE STORM: PREPLANNING
Preparing for winter storms before they strike is crucial. Having basic supplies and knowing where to get those you don’t stock saves time and energy. Designate a department liaison to facilitate winter-operations planning with other municipal agencies, such as public works and EMS. Produce an action plan to coordinate services, such as snow -plowing and removal. Develop a list of contacts for obtaining emergency services and equipment, such as sand, salt, shovels, heaters and generators.
Make public awareness part of your winter preparedness plan. Issue a press release to local media reminding the public about the dangers–and safe use–of candles, portable heaters, chimneys and furnaces. Include tips on safe driving and prompt citizens to check on family and neighbors–especially the elderly–during harsh weather.
Winter weather takes a toll on our equipment, too. Solution: Extra attention before winter weather strikes keeps things running smoothly. Drain, heat or watch pumps and water tanks carefully to prevent freezing. Maintenance is important year-round, but make sure to perform the following tasks before and during winter operations:
- Antifreeze mixture and levels;
- Engine oil levels;
- Windshield wiper operation and cleaning-fluid levels;
- Cab heater and window defroster operation
- Pump lubrication and hydraulic fluid levels
- Tire chains and mudflaps; and
- Tire pressure
- Keep fuel tanks filled;
- Keep lead-acid batteries fully charged and clean
- Fix exhaust system leaks
- Lubricate door and compartment hinges
- Replace broken lights, reflectors and mirrors;
- Open/close radiators shutters properly;
- Test and maintain all portable equipment; and
- Have lock de-icer, penetrating oil, ice scrapers and jumper cables on hand.
Freezing temperatures may cause hoselines to become brittle break-jeopardizing interior crews’ safety. Solution: Pull an extra hoseline during extreme weather and have a rapid-entry team ready to provide relief with the functioning hoseline if something goes wrong. Valves may freeze shut from hose overspray and impede water-flow operations.
Solution: Shield exposed pump panels with tarp to keep your truck functioning adequately. Kerosene serpent heaters are useful for warming valves, pumps, nozzles, hydrants and crew.
DRESSED TO CHILL
In cold weather, it is imperative that we protect ourselves from the dangers of hypothermia and frostbite with extra layers of clothing and by covering exposed skin. Protect feet from frostbite by wearing warm dress in extra layers, wear full turnout gear and stay dry. Make sure the outer layer is visible and reflective.
CLOTHING ITEMS TO CONSIDER
- Wool or insulated socks;
- Nomex hood
- Earflaps and neck-warmer;
- Turnout gear;
- Long-sleeved shirts and pants;
- Thermal underwear;
- Winter hat;
- Extra set of dry clothes;
- Waterproof boots with traction and extra length; and
- Instant heat packs (hand-warmers).
Ice covered gear and frozen fingers make even simple tasks, like buckling belts, difficult.
Slippery roads are dangerous and challenging-even for those among us who consider themselves expert drivers, and especially those without substantial winter-driving experience. Alternating periods of snow and rain followed by freezing temperatures create a dangerous condition called black ice–a thin layer of ice that forms on pavement. This substance can be deceiving, making roads appear wet rather than icy, and can hide beneath a layer of snow.
Solution No. 1: Drive as slowly and cautiously as possible to ensure public safety and crew safety. Slippery roads dramatically worsen stopping and turning ability. It’s not worth placing yourself or others at risk to gain a few seconds in response time. Have extra crews on call or at the station to give yourself more time for caution during response.
Solution No. 2: Consider winter’s wrath when creating your annual budget. Studded tires or tire chains may keep your rig from spinning its wheels at the bottom of a hill while a fire burns out of control. If you live in a particularly harsh climate, consider four-wheel drive ambulances and mini-pumpers. Although more expensive, these vehicles may prove their worth when icy conditions hit.
Solution No. 3: Respond in non-emergency mode whenever possible. For example, some agencies use this policy when responding to automatic alarms, odor investigations and non-emergency medical-assist calls. An on-the-quiet response encourages engineers to temper their sense of urgency and drive more slowly. This might also reduce danger to the public, who sometimes panic when they hear sirens and pull over abruptly without checking for other traffic. Additionally, dispatchers should remind crews to use caution and give periodic weather-condition and road-closure updates.
Solution No. 4: Practice winter driving in an empty, slippery parking lot. Alter response routes in favor of safer roads during rough weather. Disengage driveline retarders on slippery surfaces, because they can cause drive wheels to skid.
SCENE OPERATION: THE COLD FACTS
There’s never a good time for a fire. Low visibility and freezing temperatures can thwart the best-thought-out plans.
Solution: Use extra road flares and reflective vests to increase visibility. Have a backup water supply location in case your hydrant or stream bed freezes. Be ready to call mutual aid for additional tanker shuttles or personnel.
Coupling leaks, pump operations and overflows can create icy conditions on scene. Solution: If there’s snow or ice underfoot, request a salt truck from your local street or highway department when you arrive on the scene. Salt, an essential part of your early response, prevents buildup. Additionally, each company should carry five-gallon containers of salt and sand to spread around hydrants, pumpers and slippery grounds. Larger supplies may be needed at working fires. Remember, sometimes it’s impossible to control ice if you’re pumping high flows in freezing temperatures.
KEEP THESE SCENE-SAFETY ITEMS ON HAND
- Five-gallon pails of salt, sand or cat litter;
- Shovels and brooms;
- Road flares;
- Portable lighting;
- Traffic cones or barriers;
- Illuminated traffic wands;
- Reflective vests;
- Scene designation tape or rope;
- Personal strobe or reflector lights;
- Boot-traction devices or cleats; and
- Wheel chocks.
On-scene personnel functions diminish greatly in extreme cold. Simple-yet-critical tasks like buckling SCBA belts, fastening helmet straps and holding onto ladders are complex for gloved, frozen fingers. Solution: Recognize an extended attack situation early and dispatch more personnel. Dispatching extra alarms (therefore more firefighters) during harsh weather allows firefighters to be rotated frequently out of service and into rehab.
UP ON THE ROOF
Put chimney fire supplies on the aerial truck in a lidded metal garbage can. Include a coal shovel, heavy gloves, chimney extinguishers and a knockdown chain. Remember that spraying water down a hot chimney can crack the flue and create a huge mess. Knock down burning creosote with the chain, shovel out embers from below, and place in the garbage can for disposal.
Spraying water down a hot chimney can crack the flue and create a huge mess.
Dispatching extra alarms during harsh weather allows firefighters to be rotated frequently.
Pull an extra hoseline during extreme weather and have a rapid-entry team ready to provide relief.
COME IN FROM THE COLD
On-scene firefighter rehabilitation is even more important in cold weather. Protect your responders from hypothermia and frostbite with extra layers of clothing and get your people to cover any exposed skin. Operating in full turnout and extra layers can be particularly stressful, dehydrating and exhausting. Keep crews dry and warm by rotating them often through established rehab areas, where warm and cool drinks and nourishment are provided. Companies should carry a sealed plastic rehab container with extra clothes, heat-packs, sports drinks, food and water.
All companies should carry a supply of mylar thermal blankets. First responders should consider carrying them in their personal vehicles too. Whether for responders, patients, or others on the scene, these are a convenient, low-cost, highly effective first line of defense against hypothermia. The help keep someone warm, and unlike traditional blankets, they keep the patient dry and protect better against wind. And when a non-ambulance/non-rescue unit is first to arrive at an outdoor medical emergency, they can be an invaluable first line of defense against patient shock or hypothermia while waiting for further coverage.
Many cities are fortunate enough to have Salvation Army mobile canteen trucks that respond at all hours to extended incidents. Contact your local Salvation Army to see if this service is available. If not, allocate personnel to provide hot chocolate and drinks on scene.
Idea: Consider converting mass-transit buses into warming units. The buses have ample room and seating, allow crews to get out of the cold and provide space enough to accommodate several heaters. Check with your local transit authority or other company that might provide a bus or similar vehicle.
Carry a pack of mylar thermal blankets on each apparatus. And in personal vehicles.
Use salt on scene to prevent ice buildup and reduce the chance of firefighter injury due to poor footing.
CLEAR SKIES AHEAD
After each incident, remember to restock supplies, drain water from pumps and wash road salt and sand off of apparatus and equipment. Then, evaluate your actions to better prepare for the next incident or storm.
Firefighters are taught to adapt and overcome challenges, so crews shrug off the ice, snow and cold in favor of getting the job done-usually safely thanks to good preplanning. It’s a familiar winter routine: Fight fire in cold and rain, then return to the warmth of the firehouse and thaw out just in time for the next dispatch into the bitter cold.
GARRETT LAW is a Boston Fire Department analyst and volunteer firefighter in the Sherrill-Kenwood (NY) Volunteer Fire Department. He also is the author of Hearts Afire.
PAUL M. ROSS JR., a freelance writer and firefighter/EMT with nine years experience in both urban fire-rescue and Wester U.S. wildland firefighting, resides in the “Gateway to the West”, St. Louis, Mo.
The following people contributed to this article: Sgt. Larry Settle, District of Columbia Fire Department; Chief Kevin Stieve, Baraboo (Wis.) Fire Department; Asst. Chief Douglas Ray, Sherrill Kenwood (N. Y.) Volunteer Fire Department; Greg Toll, Boulder (Colo.) Fire Department; Ronald Endle, Chief of Training, Buffalo (N. Y.) Fire Department.