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Braving the cold: How firefighters should prepare for winter weather

It’s important to have your crew and apparatus ready for these conditions well in advance of the cold weather forecast


The cold weather preparation of operations and equipment procurement should occur months prior to using or implementing them.


Winter weather — periods of rain, freezing surfaces and snowfall — can cause a multitude of problems for firefighters.

Freezing conditions can affect response and water supply, and present operating hazards. Heavy and sometimes even minor snowfalls can hamper operations and may present the need for additional equipment and alternate procedures. In addition, water supply can be affected by hydrants that are blocked by snow or even frozen.

It’s of utmost importance to have your apparatus ready for these conditions — and well before when winter is already upon you or you encounter your first freezing temperatures. You must be pro-active and implement a system of equipment procurement and apparatus maintenance that anticipate these conditions. Having a plan in advance and starting the process way ahead of its actual need can go some way toward mitigating against problems.

Each department should contact other agencies in their areas to establish procedures where assistance will be needed to conduct fire and emergency operations. The agency responsible for snow removal whoever it may be must be involved in your winter operations standard operating procedures. Priorities for snow removal should be fire station streets and the primary streets used for response. Critical hazard areas such as hospitals, nursing homes, child care centers and any designated target hazards should be on the list, too.

Traffic control in cold weather

The local police should also be actively involved in these types of operations. They could assist by having abandoned vehicles removed, controlling traffic during operations and closing streets for emergency responses.

A list of other agencies and private entities that could assist should be kept by the chief and available to anyone who may need their assistance. Other issues the chief should consider are identifying primary response routes requiring snow removal and other sites in the area that can stage emergency units if necessary. Additional equipment and apparatus could be assembled and additional personnel placed in service during these weather-related emergencies as well.

Additional equipment may be necessary

Extra hose, hydrant and water supply appliances, as well as shovels, should be carried on appliances during winter. This additional equipment would allow any apparatus to put a hand line in operations, which may be necessary due to anticipated delays in response. Imagine you are a truck company on the scene without an engine, and immediate water is needed to save or protect a life. With the additional equipment, a ladder company could possibly contain the fire or even extinguish it.

Fire stations should keep a supply of sand or salt for use and also smaller containers of these products on each apparatus. A sufficient amount of shovels should also be kept to help keep the front of the fire station clear, while a shovel should also be carried on each apparatus. Also, remember to discontinue the use of water in quarters to prevent icing of the apparatus floor or the apron of quarters.

Apparatus and appliances such as pumps, tower ladder pipes, deck-pipes and manifolds should always be drained after use and if possible at each shift change. When responding, be wary of the apparatus sliding and steep hills that are slippery or iced; they should traversed with caution. A good tip I learned is that if you have a defective booster tank that leaks, allow a hose in quarters to slowly drip into the tank. This will ensure a full booster tank of water when you respond and it may actually be your only water source available at the fire scene. Make sure that it does not overflow as this may cause a slippery condition, resulting in icing.

Things to Remember on SCene during cold weather

  • Extend your search for the fire or emergency after you arrive on the scene. Conditions may not be obvious upon your arrival or no one may be present on the scene to guide you to the location. Some buildings may be tightly closed up, hiding evidence of fire.
  • Always test hydrants before using them to ensure they are not frozen.
  • During intermittent line operations, you should crack the nozzle to have a slight flow of water to prevent freezing.
  • Place water extinguishers inside the apparatus to prevent freezing.
  • Drain and replace your hose as soon as conditions permit.
  • Lash or butt ladders you are planning to use to prevent slipping.

All fire departments need to develop severe weather and snow emergency procedures. Triggers for implementation should also be integrated into the plan. The preparation of operations and equipment procurement should occur months prior to using or implementing them. Remember, it’s always better to prepare in advance.

What are your tips for operating in winter? What are the problems your department encounters? Leave your comments below.

This article, originally published on Nov. 5, 2007, has been updated

‘Fire Operations’ by Fred LaFemina covers the whole range of fire ground concerns from rescue tactics to hoseline operations. Get tips on how to stay safe at the fire ground with FireRescue1’s exclusive expert column.