There are no ‘snow days’ in the fire service

Debilitating snowstorm cripples infrastructure, highlighting vital role of fire and EMS personnel during crises

This winter has been rough on several areas of the country. Coming out of the Pacific Northwest, a stream of arctic air and moisture pushed all the way down into parts of New Mexico, Oklahoma and Texas, then up the Mississippi onto the Tennessee Valley, across the Ohio Valley and into parts of Pennsylvania and New York.

Over a 36-hour period, southwest Ohio where I live saw approximately 12 to 14 inches of snow and ice, while other areas of Ohio saw much more. This was the most snow on the ground in a decade. Fortunately, our Public Works Department was on it, and roads were being plowed and salted on a regular basis, easing first responders’ jobs getting to an emergency scene. We also had direct communications with that department if we experienced difficulty with any drifts or ice.

Just prior to the storm hitting this region, our assistant chief of operations sent out an “all-hands” email, primarily for the benefit of our newly hired recruits, reminding them that there are no “snow days” in the fire service. He also instructed our fire apparatus operators and company officers to re-review our standard operating guidelines (SOGs) on the use of snow chains or spot chains.

It was a good reminder to all of us to check our cars, keep them roadworthy and clear of snow and ice for response, and above all for firefighters, to be at their duty station on time for shift change, even suggesting that if there were potential problems, it was better to come in early rather than be late.

Triple threat: Power, heat, water

While I initially chuckled at the idea of “snow days,” my thoughts then shifted to those areas of the country that have been hit much harder than us. As I write, the most of Texas is not only under their worst winter storm in over 30 years, but also without electric power and, in some cases, without natural gas for heating. This has resulted in approximately 8 million citizens being without power, heat and even fresh drinking water.

Northeast Ohio experienced part of the “Great Blackout” in 2004, which not only knocked out electricity but also the municipal water system in many cities and counties. The fire service, using our intra-state response plan, reacted by bringing additional fire and EMS resources, including water tenders from across the state, into that region. But even during those difficult days, the area did not have the triple threat of being without power, heat and fresh water.

During these crises, I’ve started becoming hyperaware of the new role of the fire service in emergency management. While you have other state-wide resources, including the National Guard, and the use of the Emergency Management Assistance Compact (EMAC), the fire service remains unique in its use of the Incident Command System (ICS) and the National Incident Management System (NIMS) on a daily basis that can bring into play both intrastate and interstate resources in real time.

I am sure that we will learn a great deal from our brother and sister firefighters in Texas from this natural disaster, especially their operations within the first 72 hours. FEMA will assist these state agencies with long-term shelter, food, water and recovery.

Further, investigations into what went wrong are already underway at many levels, including at the federal government. Unfortunately, while investigations may also lead to long-term recommendations, especially with the power grid, they won’t immediately help those in need with their fire, EMS or personal emergencies – that falls to us in the fire service.

Always 'on'

It is clear that a large portion of this response and relief effort has once again fallen to the people and resources of these local fire departments. Whether wildland-urban interface fires or natural disasters with widespread additional consequences, such as in Texas today, they are a stark reminder of why we are firefighters, and there are never any “snow days” for us.

Stay safe!

[Read next: Revisiting the 4 roles of firefighters in disasters]

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