The cold can be unforgiving, and it certainly makes an already difficult job even more so. Operating in Alaska for the last two decades, I’ve experienced this first-hand, and I’ve picked up a few tricks of the trade for cold-weather operations. In this article, I hope to pass on a few nuggets of information to those firefighters who may not see a lot of cold weather, and offer some helpful reminders to my fellow cold weather vets.
Preparation Is Key
First and foremost, preparation is the key to successfully overcoming any challenge, especially when the challenge cannot be predicted—like weather. Reviewing your department’s cold weather policies and guidelines may be the “just-in-time training” the crew needs. If your department lacks cold-weather policies, or the policies are missing some basics, here are a few ideas to help prepare for the first cold snap.
Firefighter Prep: Firefighters should report to the station appropriately prepared, both mentally and physically, to face potential operational challenges. Each crewmember should be well rested, well hydrated and dressed for the weather.
When it comes to clothing, I recommend that firefighters dress in layers that are moisture-wicking and quick-drying. Avoid cotton if at all possible; natural fibers tend to hold water, but synthetic fibers that wick well may not be suitable for wear under fire gear. For a damp or poorly dressed firefighter, “clean-up,” “standby” or similar slow tasks can become exceedingly uncomfortable, if not painful.
Every member should also have a gear bag, or “stash,” on the rig for extended operations. At minimum, that stash bag should include:
- Spare gloves, socks, hoods, sweatshirt and T-shirt: Few things are more miserable than being cold and wet. Simply having dry gear can be enough for you to stay useful on the fireground.
- A stocking cap: In addition to warming, a good stocking cap will prevent frostbitten ears that the fire helmet and earflaps don’t protect.
- Ice cleats/grippers: A good pair of cleats can save a career. Wet ice is some of the slickest stuff on earth, and fire scenes tend to have lots of dark areas and lots of water. When darkness meets ice, falls are almost inevitable. Careers have ended for want of better traction and a soft landing.
- Water bottle: It is very important to hydrate before you get cold. Your body can better compensate for nearly everything, including the cold, when you are well hydrated.
- Energy bars: Energy bars (not candy bars!) provide a quick source of usable calories in the form of complex carbohydrates. Maintaining a core temperature requires a lot of calories, as does firefighting. Sugary drinks and foods are poor sources of much-needed clean calories.
Apparatus Prep: The fire apparatus seems to be immediately impacted by the cold. Ensuring that the apparatus is ready for cold weather is as simple as checking some standard mechanical items and adding some equipment. Following are some things you may consider adding for winter operations:
- Spray bottle filled with full-strength automotive antifreeze: Used to lubricate hose and appliance threads to prevent freezing.
- Portable plumber’s torch: Used to thaw stubborn, frozen caps and couplings.
- Dead-blow hammer: Used to remove ice from tools, couplings, appliances, gear, etc. The dead-blow hammer works well, as it won’t bounce off the ice and it generally doesn’t damage the item being struck.
- Scoop shovels: Used to clear paths on medical calls, clear hydrants that may be buried and dig out stranded motorists.
- Spare flares and cones: Used on slick roadways to provide increased warning time for approaching traffic. Consider the use of cones in deep snow, as flares and strobes can melt into the snow or become buried.
- Tire chains: Ensure that you have appropriately sized chains for your apparatus and that the crew knows how to put them on correctly. Chain drills can help ensure that all crewmembers are familiar with donning and doffing chains. If you don’t have chains, don’t wait until the winter event to try getting them; everyone else will also be trying.
- Sand bucket: An old foam bucket or five-gallon bucket containing sand or ice melt is extremely useful in slick areas and for sanding pathways at medical responses.
Additionally, you’ll need to prepare the pump. This means either dry the pump or prepare for keeping the pump wet. In my experience, manufacturers will always recommend running a pump dry if it will be exposed to freezing temperatures. Dry pumps won’t freeze. In my department, however, we run our entire fleet of pumps wet at all temperatures, because we have a hard time getting the pump completely dry—and then keeping it dry. To keep the pumps from freezing, the thermal mass of the water in the tank is used by circulating the tank/pump any time the apparatus is parked outdoors. This circulation keeps the water moving, which helps prevent freezing. Your organization should have a policy on wet vs. dry pumps; train your crew to this standard.
Ready for Response
Responders don’t get to choose when calls come in. Emergency responses occur during, and because of, treacherous road conditions. Drivers may encounter roads that are impassible due to ice, steep grade, deep snow, disabled vehicles, snow banks and downed trees or utility lines. Route selection and area familiarization will pay dividends in these events; knowing the area prevents surprise difficulties.
Operators must not transition the urgency of the response into unsafe driving. Remember: Road conditions and vehicle limitations dictate safe operating speed, not the emergency. Slow down! Few things will have a more significant impact on responder safety during hazardous road conditions than simply slowing down and providing greater reaction time and stopping distance. After all, your crew’s unique collection of talents, knowledge, skills and abilities are of no value to the community if you fail to make it to the incident. Arriving a minute later is better than not arriving at all.
Difficult operations are the nature of the modern fireground; winter conditions compound those challenges. Let’s address some things to consider while preparing for the challenges of winter fireground operations.
Size-up and assessment of conditions: The ability to complete an assessment of the area of tactical operations may be hampered by deep snow or ice. Smoke can cool upon exiting and hold to the ground, making it nearly impossible to properly assess the conditions you’re facing. Losing these tactical perspectives can reduce situational awareness for all members on scene. Consider using other officers or crews to view unseen parts of the structure via driveways, allies or streets that have been cleared. If you can’t get the full walk-around, be sure everyone on the fireground knows a full tactical size-up has not been done.
Structural loads: Heavy snow and ice conditions can stress the structure to its limits while the fire is attacking structural members and connection points. Watch for signs of structural stress like deflected roofs and walls early in the incident. Remember that over-stressed structural members may fail without warning and progress rapidly.
Increased “lag time”: Deep snow, limited access, unsure footing and high snow banks may dramatically slow attack line deployment and advancement, allowing the fire time to grow. Forecast a slower deployment and calculate actions based on more advanced fire behavior than is presenting.
Ladders: Ladder placement may be limited or impossible due to reduced street access for aerial apparatus or deep snow surrounding the incident. Be sure to leave room for the truck and assign additional resources for truck work. If objectives can’t be met, be sure that everyone operating on the fireground knows.
Ventilation: Vertical ventilation may be impossible due to snow accumulation on the roof, and PPV may be ineffective due to the limited access at the entry point. Vertical ventilation may be achieved by completing a gable-end cut to clear the overhead of heat and smoke. Digging out the entry area can open enough space for the fan. Again, add more resources for the truck duties.
Freezing hose: When attack and supply hoses stop flowing, they will quickly freeze. Tip: Following knock-down, find a window or bathtub and slightly open the bail to keep water in the line moving. Do not shut off hoses completely until you’re ready to quickly drain and roll.
Water run-off: Fire-suppression water that fails to convert to steam needs someplace to go. Water may accumulate in basements or low areas around the scene. Once operations have concluded, these water collection points may freeze and create larger issues. Water from run-off or mist from master streams may also freeze in/on the structure and roof. Water weight in the form of ice will eventually overload the structure and lead to collapse. Evidence that water is not leaving the structure must be quickly recognized and appropriately managed.
Crew relief and rehab: The importance of rehabilitation cannot be overstressed here. In cold weather operations, the effectiveness of rehab and crew relief will make or break the operation. Warm, rested crews make better decisions and work more efficiently. Tip: Rehab should be in an area that is warm and allows for firefighters to doff gear for warm-up. Cramming firefighters into the back of a rescue unit or ambulance is not appropriate. Be creative when solving the rehab challenge; commandeered city buses or inflatable tents, and even neighboring structures, can be used as rehab areas to allow crews time to recover and prepare for the next assignment. Calling additional resources and rotating crews back to the nearest firehouse for rehab can also be effective, as the staged apparatus may also need to be warmed up.
The following are just a couple of the more common issues related to non-fire incidents and how they are impacted by cold weather-related responses:
Motor Vehicle Collisions (MVCs): Remember that the safety of the crew is primary. Provide blocking with apparatus, and never expose responders or victims to uncontrolled traffic. Call for more apparatus and help from law enforcement if necessary. Don’t forget the impact of cold on the crash victims; allowing a patient to become hypothermic while they are extricated and packaged is not quality care.
Carbon Monoxide (CO): Any device that burns fuel produces CO during combustion. CO is a silent killer that becomes more prevalent during the colder months as heating systems are strained and used for longer periods of time. CO symptoms are often mistaken as flu-like symptoms or general illness. Rule out CO as a cause whenever fuel-fired (natural gas, propane, fuel oil, etc.) appliances or vehicles are present and operating in the residence or area to which you have been called. Remember that most oxygen-saturation meters will register CO as O2 and report an inaccurate reading. Never take these calls for granted. Review your department’s policy several times throughout the winter, and know how to use your gas monitors.
Operating in cold weather presents unique challenges for firefighters. Preparation will ensure success and minimize hardships associated with challenge. Hopefully this article has given you some ideas or has reviewed topics that you’ve already considered. Good luck, and be safe during this winter’s responses.
Sidebar: Ice Rescue Response
Safe response to ice emergencies must be well organized and orchestrated. If your response district has water and freezing temperatures, then you have the potential for an ice-related emergency. Review any policies that apply to ice or surface water rescue during the pre-season policy reviews. For ice emergencies, many of the basic concepts associated with other water rescue emergencies apply.
- The PPE requirements and initial actions for ice rescue emergencies are similar to those for standard water events; firefighters should be protected from the elements and water temperatures. Personal floatation devices (PFDs) are minimum PPE, and water rescue/dry suits are recommended for primary and secondary rescuers—no turnouts.
- Size up the incident by determining if the water/ice is moving or static, and determine the best access to the scene. If the victim is on the surface, establish and maintain voice and visual contact throughout the rescue.
- If the victim is submerged, establish landmarks for locating them based on last seen points and witness statements.
- Pets and other animals are often the first victims of thin ice. If your company has been called to a rescue, remember that a firefighter’s life should never be risked to rescue an animal.
- In the event that a person has gone through the ice, resist the urge to venture onto the ice. Treat the ice as you would open water, and remember the basic water rescue hierarchy: Throw, Reach, Row, Go. Throw rescue lines, floats and/or PFDs to provide immediate rescue support for the victim. Often, some assistance in getting onto the ice surface and a quick pull to safety from a rescue rope is all the victim needs. Reach with buoyant tools and equipment if available. Consider inflatable items, such as air-filled hoselines. A compressed air foam system (CAFS) compressor or a hose cap with an air fitting combined with an SCBA bottle work best to inflate the hose. Row across the ice using a stable, flat-bottomed or inflatable boat. Along with standard oars for open water, pike poles work well to move a boat across smooth ice. The handle ends of the pikes can provide a means to reach for the victim and to assist them into the boat (D-handled poles are recommended). Go onto the ice or into the water only when absolutely necessary. Only properly equipped and trained rescuers should engage in a rescue of this nature. Ice dramatically increases the risks associated with a water rescue and specialized training is necessary to ensure rescuer safety. Prior to any access onto thin/unstable ice or entry into cold water, ensure secondary rescuers and support crews are in place.
Watch the victim and any rescuers closely for signs of hypothermia. Hypothermia decreases fine motor function and diminishes decision-making capabilities.