Cold Weather Operations

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.

Water on the ground from cold weather operations will create an increased potential for slips and falls. Sodium Chloride or road salt is commonly carried on fire apparatus due to its ability to impede ice formation. Road salt is often applied to the ice once it is already formed. Unfortunately, the salt must first be dissolved before it can work effectively. Salt works by breaking chemical bonds and preventing water molecules from aligning in the crystal state that we talked about. If salt is applied before water freezes, it will be readily dissolved and will effectively lower the freezing point of the water.

Fireground Hazards

In addition to the obvious fall hazards, ice will present other hazards and problems on the fireground.

As water is applied to a burning structure it will freeze and not run off. As more and more water is applied, ice will cause additional weight and stress on structural members increasing collapse potential. Locks and halyards on ladders can become frozen making them inoperable or difficult to move. Aerial ladders can become caked with ice increasing weight loads on them resulting in failure or twisting of the ladder.

Self contained breathing apparatus used in the fire service are certified by NIOSH to be able to be used in temperatures as low as -25 degrees farenheit but should still be used with caution during cold weather operations. Going from extreme cold to a high heat interior position can cause problems with breathing apparatus. It is imperative that S.C.B.A. are properly checked and maintained. Air quality should be tested to make certain that the moisture level in breathing air is kept to a minimum to prevent icing of the internal components of S.C.B.A. Nosecups should be utilized inside the masks to prevent fogging of the lens and impairing vision for firefighters. All firefighters will need to be trained and be thoroughly familiar with emergency procedures in the case of S.C.B.A. failure.

Hypothermia & Frostbite

Rehabilitation resources and additional alarms should be requested as soon as possible. Firefighters will only be able to battle the elements for short periods of time in extreme weather. All officers and firefighters should become aware of the signs and symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia. They should also become familiar with ways that they can prevent them.

Frost bite is caused by parts of the body being exposed to extreme cold. It can result from a very short time of exposure if cold enough. Fluids contained within exposed body part freeze causing blood vessel damage and necrosis or death of tissue in the affected area. Several factors contribute to the severity of frostbite:

  1. The temperature to which the exposed part is exposed
  2. The length of time which the body part is exposed
  3. The condition of clothing covering the exposed area (Is it wet or dry?)


Most often the hands, feet, ears and face of a firefighter are most prone to frostbite. Frostbite will appear as changes in skin appearance as discoloration and will be accompanied by numbness and stiffness to the affected area. The best way to prevent frostbite is to protect skin from direct exposure to cold air. Firefighters should dress in layers of loose fitting clothes beneath their turnout gear. Materials of these clothes should allow evaporation of perspiration and not be restrictive as to compromise the body