Saturday, January 02, 2010

Fighting Fires in Cold Weather

Mother Nature Shows No Mercy
By: Lou Angeli
(St. Louis, MO) -- REPOST -- As weather experts and politicians debate the effects of Global Warming on North America’s weather patterns, the "B" shift members of St. Louis Squad-2 don't really give a damn. Winter is on them, and the simple fact of the matter is it's getting mighty cold.

Cold weather makes America's most dangerous occupation even more hazardous. Statistics show that most serious structural fires occur during the winter months, when homes and businesses are sealed tight, and supplemental sources of heat are being used.

Granted, a few areas of North America are "temperate" and experience consistent weather patterns throughout the year. But unless you're a firefighter in Key West, McAllen (TX) or Phoenix, chances are you've already noticed that hot, muggy days have been replaced by cold, windy nights. You've also noticed that fighting fires in below freezing weather isn't fun.

This year, winter came early and with vengeance to the East Coast and Upper Midwest. So much so that many governors designated areas hit by early winter storms as disaster areas. With temperatures hitting the single digits, and wind chills exceeding minus 40 below, serious fires have caused millions in damage, and claimed a number of lives.

Fighting fires in cold weather is part of everyday life for firefighters who operate near our border with Canada. This constant exposure to Mother Nature's brutal side has made on thing clear. -- the cold takes it toll on personnel and equipment.

And during the past week the Arctic cold has dipped well into the continental US. And even though we know it's going to happen, Old Man Winter takes those of us in the lower-48 by surprise every time.

But It's A Dry Cold, Chief

Try telling that to firefighters in Indianapolis, who are accustomed to relatively stable winter weather. Last year -- by mid-December -- they were operating in the coldest air to hit the area since 1887. Just South of Indy, in Bargersville, Indiana, the town experienced 12 consecutive days of sub-zero weather. Years of training and experience hadn't prepared these Johnson County volunteers for this type of firefighting.

This season, fire departments throughout the snow belt, are preparing for the same cold, with one major difference. Many have developed a contingency plan - one that stresses "firefighter safety". Generally speaking, north of the Mason-Dixon line, departments are better prepared for the hardships of cold weather. But when the alarm sounds, and the thermometer is stuck at zero, neither a firefighter's training nor protective gear can block out the effects of the biting cold.

Using Common Sense

Once companies have arrived on the fireground, firefighter safety becomes a primary consideration for command. While Engine Company members concern themselves with fighting the fire inside the structure, Truck or Support Company members are busy fighting the elements, working on icy surfaces and slippery ladders.

Firefighting in cold weather still requires getting water to handlines and master streams. It's one of the most difficult tasks in winter firefighting. In icy temperatures, leading off from a frozen hydrant or pond may waste valuable minutes. That's why it's important to pre-plan wintertime water supply operations.

In areas which have limited or no firefighting water, companies rely on large diameter supply lines and tanker shuttles to provide adequate water. Planning officers know that it's difficult enough to secure water under ideal situations. But when the weather turns cold, the job becomes much more difficult. So preplan for the worse case scenario by matching mutual aid companies with your own resources in order to get the job done. Mutual Aid also plays a vital role during "working" assignments, especially when one factors in RIT teams and firefighter rehab.

Important Cold Weather Tips

Fighting fires in cold weather isn't only uncomfortable for front line personnel, it's damaging to equipment as well. Here are some tips from departments around the country that may prove useful during cold weather incidents in your area:

  • Avoid coming up DRY by initiating a hydrant "Pump-Out" plan
  • Apparatus maintenance is crucial! Make sure that tire chains or other traction devices are available for all first-in units
  • Develop a "contingency plan" with the authority or agency responsible for road maintenance and service
  • Develop SOP's regarding "dry-pump" vs. "wet-pump" operations. Things to consider are response time, pump design and normal ambient temperature in the station.
  • Carry a supply of salt, sand or oil-dry to enhance footing and reduce the possibility of falls.
  • During heavy snowfalls, apparatus may be forced to operate "away" from the fire building.
    Extra lengths of attack line should be added to preconnects to compensate for the longer and indirect lays.
  • Following knockdown, when handlines are not being used, partially opened control valves will allow water to flow and prevent freezing.
  • Make sure that all waterways for monitors or deck pipes are dry, to avoid any freezing or clogging effects resulting from ice or slush.
  • Follow the manufacturer's recommendations regarding the cold weather use of SCBA. Don't allow water to seep into regulators or emission valves.
  • And finally, ensure that extra turnout gear is available, especially gloves. It's recommended that personnel wear layered clothing, rather than bulky articles.

Ours is a unique profession. As firefighters and EMT's, we're called upon to perform a number of important tasks, in a wide range of weather conditions. So whether we're working in desert heat - or arctic cold, our mission is always the same . . .to save the folks inside, and perhaps save their home. By the way, wasn't the 4th of July picnic just a few weeks ago?


(1) NOAA
(2) US Weather Service, Mt Holly, NJ
(3) Battalion Chief Edward Hojnicki
(4) KYW-TV

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