Winter is upon us, and for those of us who work in a cold-weather climate that means working in even tougher conditions than normal – snow piled to our knees, temperatures in the teens with wind chills in the single digits or below, icy roads and sidewalks. It also means different kinds of calls – falling through ice, space heater fires, frostbite, and hypothermia, just to name a few.
The most important way for us to respond to fires and other emergencies in cold weather starts way before that first frost or snow flurry. It starts with being prepared. Not only do we need to take into account personal preparedness, we also need to ensure that our apparatuses and equipment are in good working order.
Prepare yourself for what may come
Dressing properly for winter conditions can prove difficult when you’re spending a majority of your time in the heated firehouse waiting on a call, so you want to find the right balance between dressing comfortably and being ready to go outside in subfreezing temperatures.
Layering works well, as layers can be added or subtracted based on our degree of comfortableness. You’ll want to carry extra clothing with you for staying both warm and dry. You may find yourself cold and wet from being outside, and an extra set of dry clothes will be just the thing you need.
It’s also a great idea to store a jump bag in your apparatus. You can pack it with extra winter clothes, sweats, extra firefighting gloves and winter gloves, and a warm winter hat.
Lastly, it can be easy to quickly become dehydrated, especially during cold, winter months. Because it’s not hot outside, we tend to forget about drinking enough water, but you must stay hydrated, including drinking sports drinks to replace electrolytes lost while fighting the fire.
Apparatus and equipment preparedness
Much like yourself, you need to ensure proper maintenance of your apparatus and equipment. While you may be prone to procrastination, don’t wait until cold weather hits. Pick a nice, sunny fall afternoon and spend that time checking your gear to ensure it works properly.
Check your apparatus to make sure the heating system is functioning properly, as well as all tanks and valves so there won’t be any leakage or discharge in cold weather and to prevent them from freezing.
It’s a good idea to check your apparatus well in advance in case it requires any parts. That way, the garage you use has time to order them and make the necessary fixes.
Responding to a fire
When responding to an emergency in harsh winter conditions, a lot can go wrong. There’s the potential for icy roads and the apparatus sliding off the road, or even getting stuck in heavy snow, especially snowdrifts.
How do we prepare for these possibilities? First, a refresher course on driving in hazardous conditions should be given. This doesn’t have to be a formal course, but rather an informal meeting where you talk about potential winter driving hazards and how to drive on slippery roads.
Next, check and see what kind of tire chains your company has. Are they drop-down chains? Winter skid chains? Inspect and repair them ahead of time so they’re ready to go when needed. You’ll also want to have the whole company review how to install and operate the chains so you’re not trying to do it on the fly when the weather is rough.
Prepare your apparatus by stocking it with items like a toboggan-style sled for hauling hose and other equipment when the apparatus can get no closer to where you need to go. Store large, heavy-duty towropes in case you need to pull yourself or someone else out of a ditch, and keep sand or salt onboard for helping dislodge stuck vehicles.
At the scene of the fire
Equip your company with shovels and a pickax, as during heavy snowfalls, fire hydrants can quickly be covered and you’ll need a way to access them.
When temperatures drop below 32 degrees, water becomes a big issue. Why? Water can freeze in the hose lines. That’s why you need to keep water constantly moving through them and the engine to prevent them from freezing. A good way to help prevent water from freezing in the engine is by keeping five-gallon buckets of salt on hand to help reduce ice from accumulating around the engine when it’s pumping.
Other problems to look out for include freezing sprinkler systems and standpipes in buildings, especially on upper floors of multiple-story buildings. This causes the hose to have to be rolled out to further parts of the building, thus increasing the time it takes to extinguish the fire. Remind your local community to check their sprinkler systems and pipes before winter arrives. It may end up saving them a lot of damage and costs.
Frostbite and hypothermia are very real dangers for not only citizens, but you and your company as well. Freshen up on training related to how to prevent and deal with these life-threatening conditions.
While the sun is out and the grass is still somewhat green, identify fire hydrants that have the potential to be buried in snow and/or are hard to reach and mark them so they’re easier to find.
Companies that operate in very harsh, cold climates may want to invest in one or more heated shelters. This is especially true for large, long-lasting fires, so that firefighters can get out of the elements and not only warm up, but also more importantly dry out.
Winter is coming and unlike the bears and our friends and family, we can’t afford to hunker down, hibernate, and wait winter out. No matter the conditions, we must be ready and able to be in them. The best way we can do that is following these tips and preparing for any and everything ahead of time.
Stay dry, stay warm, and stay safe!
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