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.
Firefighting as we already know is an inherently dangerous profession. With the coldest part of the year approaching many members of our service must now 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.
Approximately 70 percent of winter storm related deaths will occur on the roadway according to the National Weather Service. A large number of these deaths can be contributed to slippery road surfaces and drivers being unfamiliar with a vehicles handling and performance under certain conditions. Year after year, responding to and from emergency calls is one of the leading activities being performed in studies of firefighter fatalities. Firefighters should be put through intensive driver training and be thoroughly familiar with all aspects of the particular vehicle that they will be operating. Increased stopping distances, decreased visibility and unpredictable actions of civilian motorists will have an effect on response. Routes of travel to alarms will need to take snow/ice removal and accessibility to the incident into consideration. 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? 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? Proper pre-incident planning before weather turns bad can eliminate some of these hazards.
Water Supply Concerns
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 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.
Basic chemistry can provide an understanding of waters behavior in extreme cold. Water as we are aware exists in the states of a solid (ice), liquid, and a gas (steam). The major factor that differentiates these three states is the motion of the molecules that comprise water. When heat (as in the form of friction caused by movement) is added, its molecules will move faster and freely interact. As water freezes, the movement of molecules slow down and begin to align in a crystal like structure resulting in ice. As water freezes, its density (or mass per unit volume) will also increase until it reaches a solid crystallized state. This phenomenon is what keeps only top layers of lakes frozen or ice cubes floating in a drink. If water is constricted as in a hoseline or piping when this expansion of mass takes place, the pressure exerted can cause costly damage. In any cold weather operation, hoselines and ladderpipes should be drained and picked up immediately when they stop flowing water and are no longer needed.