Impacts of Winter Weather – Part 2

Impacts of Winter Weather Part 1

Photo Tod Parker/
Indianapolis firefighters encounter wintry conditions at a house fire.
Most firefighters can attest to the impacts of winter weather on personnel. But what about the impacts on equipment and operations? What plans, processes and response changes need to be trained on by crews before that first sub-zero weather streak occurs?

Vehicles need to be rotated through your apparatus mechanics to ensure the vehicle heating systems are operational. In addition, you'll need to check that your engine cooling systems are prepared for the season. To ensure vehicle pumps and water tanks do not freeze, review your department's SOPs on keeping the pumps dry and become familiar with the available special heating measures such as the ability to transfer heat from the engine to the pump area.

Our department used to have a rule where the pump was kept dry from Labor Day until Memorial Day to ensure the pump did not freeze. Now we just encourage the pump operators to engage the pump on scene if we will be there for any length of time. Ensure the vehicle is tuned up and running properly and all mechanical, electrical, hydraulic and pneumatic systems are ready for the winter.

Some big questions to to consider include:

  • Are your tires in good condition with acceptable tread wear and tire pressure? Do you require snow tires for your area?
  • If your department uses drop-down (instant)chains, are they ready? Do you also have tire chains for when the snow depth defeats the drop-down chains' ability to function effectively?
  • Does your mechanic have spare pump gauges in case they freeze? In addition, what will you do if your gates and valves freeze? Can you thaw them out or has the ice damaged them, requiring a repair?
  • Have your driver/operators reviewed cold weather vehicle handling and how to drive in snow and/or icy conditions?
  • Do your company officers take advantage of snow to allow drivers to practice their art in a safe parking lot or other appropriate area?
  • What cautions (emergency lighting) does your driver utilize knowing that winter weather (precipitation, darkness and fog) reduces other drivers' ability to see you?
  • How well do your aerial apparatus stabilizers work on ice? To make your stabilizers work effectively, you may require placing aggregate (sand or kitty litter) under your stabilizer plates to ensure you get them back at the end of the call. You may even have to chip the ice away from the edge of the stabilizer plates. Exhausts may melt ice that will refreeze around the stabilizer plates or around hose lines and other pieces of equipment. If stabilizer plates are placed on packed snow or ice, will your exhaust melt it from under your stabilizer, affecting your aerial's stability?

And remember that any oxygen bottles being used will ice up when in cold conditions, while you should also try to prevent your water cans from freezing.

Scene safety
If ice exists on your fireground, consider the use of aggregate, kitty litter or sand when possible to reduce the slip hazards. There's also traction devices — such as YakTrax — on the market that can be added to your footwear to reduce slipping.

Water from fire hoses can cause ladders to ice up – this may require special climbing techniques to keep from slipping. In addition, cold air can trap toxic vapors close to the ground. Watching traffic on and near the fireground is also necessary due to decreased visibility at these times of year. You'll need to have law enforcement place extra traffic control measures in place as decreased visibility and the requirements for increased stopping distances may heighten the possibility of accidents from non-fire based vehicles. Stepboards and running boards on apparatus can become significantly slippery , so make sure to remind your personnel to take their time when getting off of the apparatus. Know the signs and symptoms of hypothermia and frostbit; learn how to recognize them in your team members and ensure others in your team can recognize them in you.

On-scene operational considerations
Operations on scene will be affected by a number of things. Remember that combustible gas meters may not work properly or will take longer to warm up in cold weather. Gasoline in pumps, saws or power tool tanks may have water in them causing them to freeze, while hoses can become more brittle and difficult to move. And remember that ladders can freeze up, impacting their ability to extend or retract. Meanwhile, hand tools will be more slippery and difficult to hold onto.

In order to keep patients warm and dry, ensure your apparatus carries extra blankets and plastic sheeting to keep everything dry when possible. When treating patients, get them out of the cold as soon as possible, especially the very young and the elderly. Both age groups do not have the ability to generate enough body heat to stay warm when it is very cold.

When operating from elevated positions such as aerial ladders or platforms, remember that temperatures may be colder and wind may exert a stronger impact than to crews working on the ground. As I mentioned in the first part of this series, get your canteen services (Salvation Army, Red Cross, etc.) on scene as soon as you are able to provide warm beverages and food.

Remember to add extra apparatus to your alarm responses to increase staffing to rotate personnel. If personnel will be on scene for a long period of time, consider finding shelter for rehabilitation operations by utilizing apparatus, buses, or other structures.

Gaining access to the scene may pose significant challenges in that snow piles may prevent getting as close as you'd like. In addition, snowplows may bury hydrants, meaning officers really need to know where their hydrants are placed. It may necessitate the hydrant person to carry a shovel.

Frozen hydrants
Hydrant caps may be frozen and significantly increase the amount of time it will take to establish a water supply line. Consider carrying a single jack (8 lb. sledge hammer) in your hydrant bag to "persuade" frozen hydrant caps to come off. Vehicles' ability to get near the address may be a significant issue requiring snowplows to cut access paths to the scene and to clear snow along the address street to allow for multiple apparatus to access and stage in the area.

When accessing and transporting patients, consider the use of all-terrain vehicles to pick up patients and transport them to areas where your ambulances can access. Four-wheeled drive units can be utilized in this same fashion, while brush trucks can be chained front and rear to break paths on residential streets to allow other units to get access.

Once fires have been extinguished, consider initiating salvage operations to keep contents from getting wet and freezing. Manage water runoff away from scene, preferably away from apparatus and personnel when possible. And ensure the fireground has sufficient scene lighting due to decreased visibility.

Consider the impacts of completely shutting off utilities as water lines may freeze subsequent to utility cessation, and consider relocation of displaced victims through the use of the Red Cross or other local resources.

The most important advice I can give is to take your time and try to calculate access and long-term cold impacts on your personnel and equipment. If you take your time to ensure both are in good shape, have the proper equipment to stay in operational parameters and have methods to reduce down time when possible, you should be able to weather any storm your department is faced with! As usual, I would love to hear any great ideas on how your department deals with long term cold weather operations.

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