Impacts of Winter Weather – Part 1
Photo Tod Parker/PhotoTac.com
Indianapolis firefighters work at the scene of a house fire in February last year.
Winter operations can be broken down into a few categories: personal gear preparation, procedures to protect personnel, and vehicle and scene operations. Over the past decade, the United States has seen ever increasingly significant winter storms, impacting the ability of emergency services to respond to massive areas of damage.
Winter presents itself in multiple weather patterns: lower temperatures, precipitation changes and shorter daylight hours. Significant amounts of snow bring obvious impacts, while overcast skies can also cause challenges when trying to read the presence of smoke on the horizon if the fire is in the beginning stages.
Colder weather results in increased use of heating systems and all the increased fire impacts associated with them: space heaters, fireplaces, and heating systems whether forced hot air, electric or passive systems. Don't forget that solar heating is becoming more prevalent for primary heating sources so you should take the time to research those structures in your area that have solar heat and find out how they are impacted by significant winter storms.
In addition, remember that exposure to cold weather is just as stressful to the body as hot weather if not worse. The body must keep itself warm and it performs this by burning fuel. That fuel can be glucose or if that is low, it will burn body fat through lipolysis. If the body is unable to generate sufficient heat with glucose, it will start generating more heat through muscle shivering.
This will in turn both increase body heat and burn more glucose. Cold environmental air is generally low in humidity and the body is forced to both warm itself up and humidify it at the same time. The body is normally somewhat more dehydrated during winter months as compared to the summer. All of the above actions will reduce the body's ability to work at peak performance for long periods of time, so you should be prepared for the fact that physical endurance in cold weather operations will be reduced.
So how do we counter the assault that Mother Nature and our body design brings? First, make sure you and your personnel have the appropriate cold weather gear for your area. Layers of clothing should be worn to allow for adding or removal based on the work load or increased cold impacts. Socks that are suited to keep your feet warm for long periods of time should be warn under your bunker boots. And have an extra pair of the same type to help keep your feet dry.
Spare structural firefighting gloves and a spare pair of work gloves in case one pair gets wet are also recommended. On nighttime responses, wear underclothing when responding at night, which should consist of cotton underwear when possible – should you get caught in a high heat event, you don't want to be caught wearing shrink wrap.
It goes without saying that wearing personal protective gear and wearing it properly is vital throughout the year – but in winter it can offer additional benefits, providing a significant amount of warmth by itself.
Make sure your bunker boots/station boots are water repellent. If they need some repair or reconditioning, do it before the snow flies. If your personnel wear cold weather gear for EMS calls that are not bunker gear, ensure that gear is water repellent as well. And don't forget to inspect your foot gear to ensure you have good traction. As someone who was found lying on the ground during an extrication, you may injure yourself or others if you cant keep your traction – though I saved the extrication tool from damage anyway!
It's a good idea to carry your spare socks, gloves and hats with you in a small duffel bag so it's always to hand when you need it. During this time of year, it's certainly worth dressing as if you will be outside for a long time when responding on calls. Chances are it will happen.
We need to ensure that our primary responsibility is to protect our crews. .Increasing the number of personnel on a fire scene enables crews to be rotated, keeping them warm. Rehab during cold weather should be pre-planned to cover the ability to keep personnel warm. Do you call in buses with heating systems for rehab or do you have a local occupancy that will allow you to set up rehab? Include rest and the ability to rehydrate with the establishment of the rehab area. Most critical, a spot to warm up must be a minimum. Ensure rehab has the ability to monitor personnel for hypothermia, hypoglycemia and frostbite.
If our outer shell of protection has the ability to absorb water, it will freeze. In addition, anything we sweat onto or into can freeze, too. This will impact how rapidly an individual looses body heat versus dry clothing.
Cold weather significantly impacts the equipment we use. Cold air from our SCBAs could freeze our first or second stage pressure reducers, while SCBA facepiece exhalation valves may also freeze. Pay attention to what your gear is doing. If it appears that a number of SCBAs are starting to freeze up, do we need to consider a tactical switch from interior operations to exterior?
I know from personal experience that the best place to be on a structure fire in the winter is interior, near the heat. Remember that going from a high-heat environment to a rehab or overhaul situation creates drastic changes to atmospheric conditions and may start to freeze gear that has water/perspiration soaked into it.
Our ability to keep ourselves and our personnel ready to perform in a cold weather environment starts with our ability to be proactive. We can ensure personnel are prepared physically and mentally, and equipped with the proper gear to allow them to operate effectively on incident scenes in cold weather.
Train them ahead of time to anticipate cold weather impacts from a physical point of view and to expect that cold weather firefighting is a different ball game compared to fighting fires in a warm environment. Remind them to have the warm weather gear -- let them know it is acceptable to wear the gear when the weather requires it. Remember also that Incident Commanders need to stay warm as well. That may mean them commanding from inside a vehicle instead of standing at the rear of the command car.
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