Preparing your fire apparatus for winter's chill

Take these steps to keep your fire truck performing when Mother Nature turns ugly

Was that one brutal summer or what? Well, don't take too long to catch your breath because winter weather has already begun to arrive in some parts of the country, and it's only October. 

This change in seasons brings about the need for special preparations for your fire apparatus to reduce the risk of damage from freezing temperatures, exposure to corrosive ice-melting agents, and operations conducted during periods of frozen precipitation.

The length and degree to which many of the following winterization items should be part of your department's standard operating guidelines will vary depending upon local conditions.

First, if your department does not have a standardized process for recording the daily lifecycle for each piece of apparatus — readiness checks, preventive maintenance, repairs, etc. — now is a good time to develop such a tool. Whenever you have a task that's done repeatedly, performed by a variety of people, and must have a consistent outcome, you need a process. 

This is particularly true for volunteer or combination departments to ensure that nothing falls through the cracks. The rotation of personnel operating the apparatus makes it difficult to maintain the "chain of custody" for the apparatus from day to day. 

This is no less important for career departments, however. I can recall several horror stories from my first career department, such as fuel tanks left at quarter full, water tanks left empty, SCBA cylinders not refilled, etc., even when the apparatus was staffed with a regular complement of personnel.

For a good reference source, see the Bureau of Land Management's "Fire Engine Maintenance Procedure and Record."  

Begin the winterization procedures well in advance of the onset of winter weather. The winterization section of your SOG should include, but not be limited to, these points:

  • Ensure that the engine anti-freeze is filled to the manufacturer's recommendations and has not exceeded its useful life.
  • Ensure that all vehicle chassis fittings are lubricated according to the manufacturer's recommendations. These unseen parts of your apparatus get pummeled by de-icing agents, sand and other road grit over the course of a winter.
  • Ensure that tires are properly inflated and that tread wear is within the manufacturer's recommendations.
  • Ensure that windshield wipers are in good condition and that the windshield washer reservoir is filled with a water/anti-freeze solution appropriate for winter temperatures.
  • Ensure that any containers of liquid or temperature-sensitive equipment, particularly items used to provide emergency medical care, are properly stored so as to prevent "temperature insult." No patient can tolerate the infusion of cold intravenous solutions, even on a good day.
  • Ensure that all apparatus carries a supply of ice-melting agent — calcium chloride or rock salt — when freezing temperatures are possible. A 25-pound bag is probably the minimum size you want; FDNY units carry a 50-pound bag of rock salt.

Let it snow
Many departments over the past several years have been specifying that their apparatus come equipped with self-deploying traction chains or snow chain systems. These systems are a great advancement, but they do have their limitations; when snow depths reach about 4 to 6 inches, their performance drops markedly.

To operate effectively, the chains have to be able to flail themselves out in front of the rotating rear tires. When the accumulated snowfall starts to hinder that action, performance is compromised.

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

When purchasing snow chains, look for the National Association of Chain Manufacturers' endorsement; this says that they comply with federal specifications for truck snow chains. NACM, and the vendors who sell snow chains for heavy vehicles, can also provide the snow tire chain laws for your state.

Yes, there are laws for that. Do your due diligence to ensure that what you buy, complies.

Practice installing the chains before you need to use them. You don't want to be stuck on the side of the road in the middle of a snowstorm with no idea how to install your tire chains or learn that they're not the correct set for the vehicle. One of my mentors, Deputy Chief Jim Graham, always used to say, "Doing something for the first time under emergency conditions is usually nothing less than exciting."

Here are a couple more points to include in your SOG for winter vehicle operations. All truck tire chains are designed for slower speeds, not normal highway speeds. NACM recommends that you travel no faster than 30 to 35 mph after your chains are installed. 

Failure to adhere to this warning could lead to chain failure or damage to your tires and truck. I've seen first-hand the aftermath of a set of chains coming off a truck tire even when the vehicle was being driven under 35 mph — the standard in our department — and it wasn't pretty. The incident resulted in about $2,500 in body repair and painting costs for the vehicle.

Vehicles get stuck during winter weather and fire apparatus, especially pumpers, are not immune to this hazard. Include requirements in your SOG that at the first sign that a vehicle has lost appropriate traction — the drive tires start spinning — the vehicle operator stops trying to move the truck. 

If possible, install its snow chains and only then attempt to move the vehicle. If this does not remedy the situation, or if installation is not possible, stop and call for a towing service. Your department's budget guru with thank you since the tow bill will be a lot less than repairing the damage that can occur.

Situational awareness
Train your apparatus operators to have a heighten sense of situational awareness while operating in sub-freezing weather. For apparatus operators — and all personnel operating at the scene — this means:

  • Not tolerating leaking hose connections to pump discharges or leaking hose couplings, especially when that water is heading down slope towards other emergency vehicles. I once observed a heavy-duty ambulance parked during the incident that, while its personnel engaged in the firefight, started to slide down the street due to the thin sheet of ice underneath it compliments of the personnel uphill who had disconnected fire hoses and let the water flow.
  • Use rock salt to keep the area around the apparatus safe for personnel.
  • For aerial apparatus operators, use the ice-melting agent so the outriggers and jacks maintain good contact with the ground. It doesn't take much ice under those devices and break that contact with the ground. FDNY probably puts more sticks in the air than any fire department on the planet, so there's probably a good reason why they carry those 50-pound bags of rock salt.

When you get back from a job on a cold, snowy night, what feels really good? A nice hot shower, right? Your apparatus deserves nothing less — except you can probably get away with using cold water. 

Giving the truck a good rinse after every run—especially up under the wheel wells and fenders—gets the ice-melting agents, mud and grit off and can minimize the corrosive affects on your vehicle over the winter period. So don't forget to give the truck some love when you both get back to the barn.

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