As the song goes, "the weather outside is frightful..." It certainly applies to many parts of the country at the moment. I remember, not that long ago, that such weather wouldn't have deterred a soul from being on the roads, especially during the holiday shopping season. Thankfully the number of traffic accidents has definitely decreased in my neck of the woods at least.
Yet December still remains the costliest month, on average, for residential fires in the United States. Just under 130,000 structure fires, averaging 1,700 injuries and more than 400 civilian fatalities will occur this month. Even if you aren't following the national headlines, I'm sure your local news indicates the contributions your region is making to this horrific fire-loss month.
Cooking and heating will top the list of causes, which isn't a real surprise. Increased fuel oil prices means that many will attempt to supplement their heating. Each year my department is introduced to new citizens in our community who have never used a wood stove or fireplace before and find out quickly how a damper works or that chimneys need to be cleaned. The holiday season also sees an increase in the amount of people cooking, which results in a subsequent rise in fires either from overused equipment or unattended kitchen appliances.
Also, don't forget the flammable decorations, which can also draw folks away from noticing fires in their incipient stage. Then there's the increased candle use, and while Christmas trees make up a small percentage of fire origins, they, along with their decorations and wrapped presents, add considerably to the fire load and the financial and emotional trauma of a residential fire.
The holidays also mean that residences are more likely to be indoors, increasing the need for search and rescue tactics. Either that, or not at home and the house is closed up, extending the time for the fire to grow until a neighbor notices it. This advanced fire spread, coupled with the perceived higher chance of occupancy, will lead to a higher calculated value of performing a search for trapped residents.
Remain vigilant All of this means a greater occurrence of fires and therefore greater opportunity for firefighter injury and death. It means that we have to remain vigilant in our focus on life safety, civilian and our own. The injury and death rate for our brother and sister firefighters remains highest in residential structures, particularly apartment buildings.
Many things fight against us this month as well. The average time of fires in the mid to late afternoon is when many volunteer department members haven't arrived home yet. Snow accumulation, icy weather and road conditions all seem to contrive against us in providing our most important service.
Of course this terrible weather that many are experiencing or soon will be just adds to the difficulties of response to such calls in both apparatus and personal occupancy vehicles. We must remind all personnel that stop distances are greater for both our apparatus and those civilians around us. We must also remind our firefighters that while responding to the station or the scene, depending on your local protocols, they do no one any good if they get in an accident, or cause one to occur in their efforts to get to a call.
Finally we must remind all personnel that our tactics often change this time of year. Roofs and hydrants are often less accessible. Surfaces can and do become coated in ice, particularly when a hose line is introduced to sub-zero temperatures. We also tend to think of the rehabilitation sector as being most necessary in the hot, humid summer months. However, the damage of cold weather to our biological systems can be just as great, and we need to ensure that were watching out for our people with rehab.
I wish each of you a wonderful holiday season, but most of all I wish each of you a safe holiday. Take the time to enjoy your friends and family both in and out of the fire service, and take a moment to remember the firefighters who won't be home for Christmas this year. The best present we can give them is to learn from the loss.
Tom LaBelle serves as an assistant chief with the Wynantskill (N.Y.) Fire Department where he is responsible for training. He has been employed by the New York State Association of Fire Chiefs since 1995. Prior to joining NYSAFC, Asst. Chief LaBelle served as the legislative director for the New York State Assembly's Sub Committee on Fire Protection Services. He provides support for career and volunteer departments from the nations largest to smallest. He currently sits as a voting member on the NFPA 1720 committee. He is a certified fire instructor and fire officer. Chief LaBelle can be reached via email at Tom.Labelle@FireRescue1.com.
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