Trending Topics

How to get firefighters, and rigs, ready for winter

Here’s a look at some fire service hacks for getting around an unruly Old Man Winter


We all know how these conditions can hamper firefighter safety and effectiveness on the fireground.


No matter how mild the forecasters say the coming winter will be, if you live in the north, you know there will be stretches when freezing cold and heavy snow conspire against man and machine. And we all know how these conditions can hamper firefighter safety and effectiveness on the fireground.

Over the past few years, I’ve written several articles on cold-weather preparations for both people and rigs. I’ve also asked for some input from fire service colleagues to find out how they get past winter’s special challenges.

The risk to firefighter safety is probably the greatest threat. Now is the time to review with your personnel cold-related injuries, the signs and symptoms, prevention strategies and rehab strategies.

“A hazard we encounter here is exposure to extremely cold temperatures,” said Capt. Colin Quinn of the Markham (Ontario) Fire and Emergency Service. “On my crew, we are constantly watching each other for signs and symptoms of hyperthermia and frost bite.

“It is easy for any firefighter or officer to get wrapped up in a call when the adrenaline is flowing so we make it a point to watch our fellow firefighters at any scene for signs of exposure. If we can catch it before it moves past the mild stage, it is a lot easier to treat.”

Quinn said training in and for the winter conditions is a key to being ready for actual responses. He stressed that it is important for crews to train in those actual conditions.

“In the training setting, we can control many of the variables and make it reasonably safe for our personnel,” he said. “I don’t want it to be the first time for one of my crew members to pull hose in the snow at an emergency.

“As a company officer, I would much rather that my crew member at least has had the chance to do it in a controlled setting first so they know the challenges that they may face doing that task at an emergency scene under adverse conditions.”


Like people, rigs also struggle in the snow and cold.

Automatic snow chain systems have become a pretty standard feature on fire apparatus for departments that experience snowy winter weather. But did you know that most manufacturers of those systems caution that when operating in snowfall greater than 6 inches the chains lose their effectiveness?

The deeper snow prevents the chains from properly rotating and fully splaying out in the correct pattern necessary to get them out in front of the apparatus tires.

If you live in an area where snowfall accumulations can routinely exceed 6 inches, ensure that each piece of apparatus has a set of snow chains that are appropriately sized and fitted for that vehicle.

“Try putting them on. Make sure they’re wired and tagged by vehicle number, not apparatus number,” wrote Bruce Verhei, COO at MountainLogic and former deputy fire marshal at Kent (Wash.) Fire Department.

“Also, do you have a stock of replacement cross links and spreader tools available? Do you put OSB (Oriented Strand Board) on apparatus floor so chains don’t pock it up?

Many areas of the country use a variety of liquid salts to treat roadways during periods of snow, sleet and freezing rain. They are great for improving winter driving safety, but rough on fire trucks.

Pass the salt

Salt, when mixed with water, becomes a brine solution. This solution reduces the freezing temperature of water. When using liquid salt or salt that is pre-wetted, the freezing points of water are reduced faster than when solid product is put on the roads.

Although these salts have been embraced by local governments, environmental groups and the snow-removal community, fleet managers are becoming increasingly distraught over their use.

Why? Because their use has accelerated the rust and corrosion of fire apparatus and other emergency response vehicles causing increased apparatus maintenance costs and a decrease in the fire apparatus lifecycle.

These pre-emergent salts can stick to vehicles longer and are more active at lower temperatures. Thus, more apparatus are experiencing severe body rust, part failures and something new — wiring-harness issues — all because of corrosion.

During the winter months one of the biggest hazards at an emergency incident are slip and fall hazards due to icy conditions.

This hazard increases dramatically if pump intake/discharge valves or drains are leaking; leaking hose couplings can dramatically increase the slip and fall “footprint” for the emergency scene.

“Our pump operators routinely apply ‘absorb-all’ (the brand we use has a kitty-litter-type appearance) to the area around apparatus pumping water,” Quinn says. “This gives firefighters walking in and around fire apparatus better traction and reduces the risk of a fall.

“Also, many company officers, including myself, request a city road salt truck to respond to the fire scene when we arrive and have obvious fire conditions. This allows us to keep the area near the scene from becoming covered in ice, as we know there is always a lot of water on the ground at any fire scene.”

Bag it, tag it

“Another problem we had run into was our hydrant firefighter would lose their tools when catching a hydrant,” said Quinn. Markham’s procedure called for the hydrant firefighter to dismount the apparatus, collect the required tools (hose keys, hydrant wrench, etc.) and wrap the hose around the hydrant so the driver could lay a supply line to the scene.

“When the hydrant firefighter put the tools down next to the hydrant they would sink down into the snow and no longer be visible,” said Quinn. So, when the firefighter went to reach for them they could not find them.”

Markham solved this problem in a relatively simple way.

“Now, we have all the hydrant tools in a bag located at the rear of the truck,” said Quinn. “Now when our firefighter dismounts the apparatus and grabs the hydrant tool bag they have all the required tools inside the bag. After they wrap the hydrant, all the necessary hydrants tools are easy to find, even in heavy snow conditions.”

What are some of the tricks of the trade that you and your fire department use to operate more safely and efficiently when Old Man Winter comes knocking at your door?

This article, originally published on Oct. 18, 2017, has been updated

Battalion Chief Robert Avsec (ret.) served with the Chesterfield (Virginia) Fire & EMS Department for 26 years. He was an instructor for fire, EMS and hazardous materials courses at the local, state and federal levels, which included more than 10 years with the National Fire Academy. Chief Avsec earned his bachelor’s degree from the University of Cincinnati and his master’s degree in executive fire service leadership from Grand Canyon University. He is a 2001 graduate of the National Fire Academy’s EFO Program. Beyond his writing for and, Avsec authors the blog Talking “Shop” 4 Fire & EMS and has published his first book, “Successful Transformational Change in a Fire and EMS Department: How a Focused Team Created a Revenue Recovery Program in Six Months – From Scratch.” Connect with Avsec on LinkedIn or via email.