Day 36 & 37: Frozen in Week Nine

January 4 and 5, 2010 (Day 36 and 37):

We returned from a 3 day Holiday weekend, and stepped into the frozen, icy world of Week Nine. Daytime high temperatures were predicted in the single digits, and we had live fire training scheduled for the week (actually fighting some fires!). What the syllabus did not show, however, were the essential winter skills we would learn during the week – lessons critical for firefighting in Minnesota in the winter.

This week would teach us those winter firefighting skills: the challenge of maintaining our footing on a steeply pitched frozen roof (with frozen toes!); trying to chop with an axe when there is an icy rind on your gloves; trying to keep pumps and hoses from freezing up when flowing water – and how to thaw them out when the inevitable freeze up occurs (we fought this battle all week long); and the never ending efforts to keep fingers and toes warm. I was “fun” in a sense – if you love the classic “man versus nature” conflict and enjoy overcoming adversity to attain a worthwhile goal. From the results this week, I can tell you that my classmates and I certainly seemed to enjoy the challenge, the rewards, and the fun!

Monday was almost entirely an indoor “classroom” day. Firefighter Derek Peterson returned to present both lecture and hands-on demonstrations of technical rope rescue. We also covered a number of department procedures and Chapter 26 from the textbook (Support of Technical Rescue Operations). PT hour was conducted indoors at the Coliseum. I had to miss a bit of class today due to a meeting downtown, and I missed PT to attend Mayor Christopher Coleman’s inauguration ceremony as he was sworn into his second term in office in the late afternoon.

Tuesday was frosty: minus 9 degree temperatures, with the wind chill more than 20 degrees below zero. After a brief session in the classroom to cover department internet policies, we broke into 3 groups to conduct some morning practical sessions outside:

  • * Laying a line in a stairway (connecting to a standpipe water supply and advancing the hose up a stairway, thus simulating fighting a fire in an apartment or office building);
  • Deck gun/monitor operations (a “deck gun” is a large diameter water nozzle that is mounted on a fire engine and shoots out a large stream of water from the top of the fire engine. A “monitor” is that same large diameter nozzle removed from the truck and mounted on the ground, where it is “fed” by one or more supply lines); and
  • The first practice session for this week’s practical, timed test: the Roof Chop. The roof chop takes place on a 45-degree roof, 20 feet in the air. The recruit climbs a ladder while in full turn out gear and SCBA, “on air,” and carrying a 9 pound pick head axe. Reaching the roof, the recruit steps off the extension ladder and on to a roof ladder, then proceeds to mark and chop a 4 foot by 4 foot hole in the roof with the axe, then returns to the ground. All steps must be completed in less than 4 minutes (recovering in the hospital after falling off the roof could take a bit longer!) :)

The group I was in got the first two stations completed before lunch – the Roof Chop would have to wait until the end of the day. After lunch, we practiced responding to a “fire” in the burn building, pulling pre-connected hose lines off the truck, and advancing the lines into the burn building to attack the “fire.” The “fire” in this case was imaginary only – we shot the water out the windows of the building once we were inside. The objective was to practice the process of pulling 200 feet of hose off the truck, getting into the building without getting knots and kinks in the hose, and advancing the “charged lines” (i.e. full of water) up and down stairways, around corners, and around obstacles and furnishings in the building. Once again we learned how physically demanding it can be to maneuver hoses and equipment at the scene of a fire.

The cold weather really hit us today, as hoses and couplings iced up on each of the “attacks” on the burn building. We managed to go through the evolution 3 times before the equipment was so frozen solid that we could no longer continue the exercise. It was cold, but extremely valuable training, and it prepared us well for the actual live burn scenarios scheduled for Wednesday.v

I finished the Roof Chop as the last station of the day. My air mask had frozen up during the afternoon’s live hose training, and I could not exhale through the mask (frozen exhalation valve); I was instructed to make the practice run without my air mask on. My gloves were frozen and it was hard to grip the axe. My feet felt like blocks of wood as I climbed the ladder to the roof and moved out onto the roof ladder. The roof ladder lays flat on the roof, and has 2 hooks on the end that hook over the peak of the roof. The rungs of the ladder provide a vertical foothold about 1 ½ inches high. On our roof prop, there are several 2 x 4 inch boards that also provide slight footholds about 1 ½ inches high. That’s all there is to brace my feet against, and I can tell you that it was really scary to let go of the ladder with my hands, brace myself against the roof with just toes and one knee, and swing the axe for the chopping actions – I felt unbalanced and uncomfortable – I was distinctly aware of the 20 feet separating me from the frozen concrete of the drill tower pad!

Although I have been on roofs many times and have no fear of heights, I had never chopped a hole in a roof with an axe during the middle of an ice age! :) Reaching out to the far corners of the area I was chopping was the worst – I was painfully aware of how easy it would be to tumble off the roof! I finished chopping the 4 foot by 4 foot hole in 2 ½ minutes – easily meeting the 4 minute maximum time limit. I was all too glad to get back on terra firma and head inside at the end of the day!

I have been asking visiting fire crews and instructors about their suggestions for keeping feet warm on the winter firegrounds. I have been at a number of winter fires, and never can keep my feet warm. The most frequently repeated suggestion from other firefighters I’ve spoken to is, “Just keep moving.” Easily said, but there is a lot of standing around and waiting on the training ground. I’ll keep looking for the elusive answer. Wiggling toes and wearing several pairs of socks seem to provide some relief, but it’s still miserable standing outside for several hours with wooden feet! I remember being on scene at a 2 alarm fire last winter with one of our talented District Fire Chiefs, “Spat” Ryan. It was 12 degrees below zero, he was wearing only black oxford shoes on his feet, and he was outside for several hours. Suffering with frozen feet, I asked him how he could stand it.....He said he was used to it after years of playing hockey! YIKES!

A warm up is coming next week, but we have a couple of cold days left to go before things warm up during the promised “January thaw.”

‘Til then, STAY WARM, and thanks for joining me “On Scene” at the Fire Academy’s icy Week Nine!

Tim

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