Cold-weather firefighting: Nowhere to run to, baby. Nowhere to hide
If the only place you’ve seen ice is in your drinks, you have missed out on of half the “fun” of being a firefighter. Those of us who have braved the winters know how brutal it can be. Especially, as a Chief, there is nowhere to go. No rehab for the Chief. So as the snow and ice accumulate, so do the challenges. I hate cold weather firefighting; my fingertips still burn every time they get cold. Let’s talk little about some considerations for not only the Incident Commander, but for the troops in the street.
- Everything happens slower….except fire spread
- Consider that heavy snow will slow down all operations which not only include response but also stretching lines and moving equipment. Unfortunately, the fire still spreads at the same rate regardless of the weather. Because of this, we can anticipate more advanced conditions when we get there. Due to these factors, it is critical that as many personnel as needed should be used to get the first line in service before even thinking about a second line. Exposure lines may need to be stretched at the same time as the first line due to wind conditions that often come with winter storms. A quick securing of a water supply and the use of a deck gun may be required until we can get a 2-1/2” line between the fire building and exposures. It’s always easier to deal with one building than to have to deal with two….or three. Movement of equipment is also more difficult. The use of ground ladders, skeds, stokes baskets, and even carry-alls might allow companies to move equipment more rapidly in snow-covered areas, using these tools as sleds. Think about this before the bad weather sets in.
- Street and response issues
- Narrow streets become narrower when the snows come. Cars park further away from curbs, hang off corners, and sometimes may be abandoned in the middle of the street. Communications will be the key when these situations are discovered so that an adjustment to positioning can be smoothly carried out. Heavy snow accumulation might also cause apparatus clearance issues in low clearance areas where the rig might normally fit. This might even include firehouses. One department damaged their rig backing in on a snow-covered apron. The higher profile of the rig backing up on the snow caused it to hit the door.
- Visibility and ventilation
- Heavy swirling snows affect visibility similar to fog; except it’s colder. Roof operations are particularly hazardous in snow storms. Cold weather also affects our ability to vent the building. Smoke may not lift as it does in warmer weather. Also, freezing weather affects smoke color, causing a whiter smoke to be issued from the building. Check out the smoke color in the picture below. Don’t be fooled by this. Keep an eye on volume, pressure, and density to get the best read on it.
- Equipment issues
- Speaking of visibility, fogged-up SCBA masks as well as frozen regulators have caused problems for firefighters. This is the reality of winter. Add in frozen hydrants (always flow the hydrant before connecting), frozen hose lines, and frozen aerial devices and operations can grind to a halt. Nozzles should be left to trickle to prevent frozen lines. Salt should be carried on every rig to be spread in the area of operations. Don’t forget the walkways, front steps and any driveways leading to the fire building.
- Hidden dangers
- I once started sliding toward the edge of a slightly pitched roof. It was a super cold night and I was exiting a window to access a fire escape at the edge of the roof. There was a bump-out on the building on the floor below and the fire escape was at the end of it (really stupid…I know). Luckily I was able to grab the fire escape as I was going over the side. It was a three story drop……the culprit—black ice on the roof at night. Always be prepared for its presence, especially operating above grade. Be aware that snow can cover hazards as well. I was told about a firefighter who fell through a snow-covered skylight and was severely injured at a fire. Probe everywhere!!! A snow-covered roof is extremely dangerous. Cavalier attitudes are unacceptable on a roof (or anywhere). Peaked roof operations should only be conducted from aerial devices when the weather is foul. Icy roof ladders are extremely dangerous. Operating without one, even on a lightly pitched roof is asking for trouble.
- Ice adding weight to structures
- Snow loads not only add weight to the roof, but ice accumulations on the exterior of the building adds considerable weight to a possibly already weakened structure. There were two gutted buildings in Union City one time which collapsed after the ice melted…the ice was the only thing holding the building together. Additionally, ice on power lines also creates potential problems that must be addressed before they become an issue.
- Cold-related injuries
- This must be a top priority. The IC must realize that a fire in weather extremes will always require more people. Strike additional alarms early; you can always return them if not needed. I have found in these conditions, a one alarm fire easily becomes a three alarm fire. A two alarm easily becomes a four. Your job as an IC is to ensure there is proper rotation and relief of companies. In order to do that, you need a tactical reserve. You also need a place where you can warm up the troops. If you don’t have a rehab unit, you might have to take over buildings, hijack buses, or anything else you can think of to protect your troops. Impress on the newer guys to have extra gloves and clothes on the rig in the winter, a winter bag if you will. Problem is they never listen……until they are caught once. Then they get it. As IC, as I said, you are probably not going to be relieved any time soon so you have to tough it out. Extra clothes are a good idea for you too. I used to use ski mittens with inserts…again the issue with the frostbitten burning fingers. Cold hands and feet make you miserable. Additionally, you just know that the outside streams will always find the command post at some point in the miserable weather. It is a part of the reality of the winter defensive operation fireground. Be nicer to the troops and maybe they won’t aim so well!
Ain’t nowhere to hide baby (Ron Jeffers)
Stay safe…and warm