First Due: 'Tis the Season

Dec. 1, 2019
Capt. John A. Hayowyk Jr. urges preparation for the variety of calls that will come that originate from home-heating equipment.

It’s the time of year when we see an increase in specific types of incidents and emergencies. We need to prepare ourselves for these incidents by drilling on how we respond and on the tactics that we take to mitigate issues. Review your standard operating guidelines (SOGs) and procedures to know exactly what needs to be accomplished to get the job done safely and efficiently. 

As the temperature begins to drop, many of us begin to rely on the warmth from our furnaces or other sources of heat to keep us comfortable during the cold winter months. These units that provide us the home comfort also can cause several issues for us in the fire service.

Furnaces and other heat-producing devices need to be maintained in proper working order. We will begin responding to a variety of heater-related calls.

The most prominent and deadly is the buildup of carbon monoxide (CO) in a structure. CO can be handled easily by members who wear the proper PPE, shut off the source and ventilate the structure. Finding the source can be tricky at times, but by using a CO meter or a multi-gas meter that measures CO, we can locate and shut down the cause of the problem. Members then can ventilate the structure and ensure that the CO is eliminated. Remember to follow your SOGs and to make the proper notifications. Be sure to get the occupants checked by EMS for potential CO exposure.

Furnaces and boilers can have a variety of issues that we are called to handle. Most heating units run on natural gas, propane or home heating oil. We need to use caution when responding to furnace and boiler emergencies. What we are dispatched to might not be what is actually occurring. For example, we might be responding to a complaint of no heat but find that the heating unit might be malfunctioning. You need to understand that there are a few steps that will keep you safe while investigating these incidents. The first: Use your senses and size-up the situation. What do you see, hear and smell as you exit the apparatus and enter the building? Certain situations, such as the presence of the “white ghost” (a highly explosive, vaporized oil that has escaped the combustion chamber and filled the furnace/boiler room), instantly will add urgency to the situation versus the more mundane activation of a low-water cut-off switch (a device that’s used to shut down the heating unit to prevent an explosion or fire due to low water level). Shutting the remote safety switch to power down the unit is the next step. Shutting the valve from the fuel source will help to prevent adding additional fuel to the situation. It’s imperative that you notify the owner and the fuel provider to make the proper repairs to ensure the safe operation of the unit. Following your SOGs will provide guidance and assist in the handling of the incident.

Areas of concern

Wood-burning fireplaces are a nice source of heat and ambiance but easily can be a cause of a structure fire. The fireplace and chimney should be inspected annually for cracks that allow heat to escape and begin to char the area around them as well as for a buildup of creosote. Creosote is a flammable material that coats the walls of a chimney.

A quick way to realize that there is a chimney fire is by sound. A working chimney fire has a distinct sound, like the roar of a jet engine. Be sure to extinguish the fire in the fireplace and then control the fire in the chimney. Remember, check for extension, and attempt to limit damage so as to get your incident priorities accomplished. (Helpful hint: Water will crack hot masonry.)

In areas where water lines are exposed to below freezing temperatures, water pipes might leak or burst. Even though it isn’t a fire emergency, we’re responsible for protecting property. When it freezes, water expands and exerts pressure on the container that’s holding it. If the container is a pipe, the pipe might split or break away at a connection point, causing a leak when the temperature rises. When there is an active leak, you must locate the closest shut-off to isolate the break and stop the leak. If you’re unable to isolate the leak, you might have to shut off the water at the water meter, which is where the water enters the structure. Notification of the building owner or property manager is important, so the clean-up and system-restoration process can begin.

 Knowing how to handle these incidents will provide for better customer service and will limit stress on you and your crew. Making the proper notifications for follow-up is essential. This will facilitate that the situation was rectified properly and that the occupants are safe.

About the Author

John Hayowyk Jr.

John Hayowyk, Jr., has been in the fire service for more than 26 years. He currently is a battalion chief for the City of Passaic Fire Department in New Jersey. Hayowyk is a New Jersey-certified Level II Fire Service Instructor. He heads up the training division for the Roxbury Township, NJ, Volunteer Fire Department. Hayowyk recently instructed at The Great Florida Fire School and the Orlando Fire Conference. He is the owner of Beyond the Basics Fire Training & Consulting.

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