With winter conditions soon approaching, the fire service is left to contend with additional demands due to heavy snowfall and extreme temperature conditions. The hazards and complications of winter firefighting can be overcome by firefighters developing a basic understanding of those hazards and conditions and properly preparing for them beforehand.
Year after year, responding to and from emergency calls is one of the leading activities being performed in studies of firefighter fatalities. Cold weather, contributing to extreme road conditions, will only increase the amount of risk that we are exposed to.
Preparing for winter response starts with making certain that our apparatus is ready and in top operating condition (as it should be at all times). In particular, driver/operators should make certain that they are familiar with the operations of window defrosters, heat vents and brake retarders on their particular apparatus as well as their department's guidelines for operating a "dry" versus "wet" pump during winter months.
Coating the threads of any fittings or port caps with straight antifreeze will help prevent them from freezing without damaging any gaskets and should performed as needed in daily vehicle checks. A spray bottle can be filled with antifreeze and kept on the rig for this purpose.
Increased stopping distances, decreased visibility and unpredictable actions of civilian motorists can all be expected in extreme weather and will have a negative impact on response. Routes of travel to alarms will need to take snow/ice removal and accessibility to the incident into consideration.
Is there a plan in place to have the public works department assist the fire department with snow removal resources in the event of an extreme winter storm? Discussing this and having a plan in place prior to needing it will definitely be advantageous.
Taking the proper precautions necessary in extreme weather is going to cause extended response times. How will this influence the actions of the first due companies? The important point to remember - the fire department is of no value unless it is able to arrive on scene safely.
Once having arrived on scene, the company officer will have to make critical decisions on the commitment of apparatus. Questions that need to be considered: are tactical positions attainable or are they blocked by snow banks? Are additional lengths of hose needed to be added to pre-connected lines to make it to the building? Can personnel access all sides of the building and are there any hazards or obstacles present that are not visible due to snow or ice such as stairs, drop offs or in ground swimming pools?
Are fire hydrants visible and accessible - both prior to and after streets are plowed? Firefighters should ensure hydrants are accessible after severe storms before they freeze by routinely checking on them and clearing snow from them. Attaching flags or a marking device that sticks up a ways in the air can also make it easier to spot a hydrant covered by snow.
Another solution that has been successful is a program called "Pluggie's Pals" where school children and their parents work with the fire department to make certain that a fire hydrant near their property is distinguished with a marker pole prior to a winter storm and are also given the responsibility of clearing their assigned fire hydrant of snow after a storm- in return, a picnic is often held for the children and attended by firefighters in the spring to say thank you to the kids.
Once finding the hydrant, is it usable or frozen? Small hand held propane torches can be of great use to free frozen hydrant caps or hose couplings during cold weather and should be placed on the rig for winter months.
Once committed and flowing water, engine companies will need to keep water moving in some manner to keep hoselines, ladder pipes, valves and pumps from freezing solid. Static water will freeze readily as we already know at 32 degrees Fahrenheit but if enough movement is provided, water will not freeze spontaneously until the ambient temperature reaches -40 degrees Fahrenheit.