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How to prep your firefighters for severe weather

Firefighters are in as much danger as civilians when heavy weather rolls in; here are steps to keep them safe

When you and your people are called upon to respond during severe weather, or in its aftermath, you must be prepared to manage a variety of low-frequency, high-risk safety hazards.

If your department has a SOG for response to emergencies generated by severe storms, by all means learn it and be guided by it. If not, this will serve as a good primer to learn how to keep you and your people safe.

When the National Weather Service issues a severe storm watch, company officers should start preparing their personnel and equipment for response. Regularly check Doppler radar images, via the Internet or television, for information regarding storm strength, movement, anticipated precipitation and wind speeds.

Closely monitor for physical indicators of severe weather, such as towering cumulous clouds, anvil cloud formations, cloud fronts, development of lightning, etc. These indicators may be present in local areas before they appear on the Doppler radar image; the radar images may be coming from a significant distance.

When operating in the field during a severe weather watch, monitor the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration weather radio to be aware of an upgrade of the watch to a warning. Other beneficial tools include any of the many apps for wireless devices that allow you to receive alerts as they are issued.

Eyes on the ground

Report any observations of damaging winds such as downe trees or power lines, structure damage, tornados or funnel clouds, or pea-size or larger hail to the nearest NWS office. Such first-hand observations provide valuable information to NWS forecasters that enable them to verify that what’s showing on the radar screen is truly what’s happening in the field.

High winds, torrential rains, lightning and hail present significant physical hazards to the public and responders alike. This is no time to allow firefighter complacency about safe operating practices to join your crew.

Strong winds can blow vehicles off the road and overturn even large vehicles such as pumpers and aerial apparatus. Additionally, winds cause trees to fall, utility wires to come down, structures to disintegrate and creating missiles out of the resulting debris. Ensure that your personnel wear their helmet and wrap-around eye protection at all times due to the potential for flying debris.

Torrential rains associated with severe weather, especially tropical storms and hurricanes, present a number of safety hazards including localized flooding, road washouts, mudslides, persons trapped in swift water and persons trapped in vehicles trapped by swift water.

Water hazards

Every year in North America between 200 and 500 people will die in floods and many more will be injured. Emergency responders are not immune from this hazard, so unless you and your crew have trained for swift-water rescues and have the proper equipment, stay out of the water.

Water moving at just 3 mph presses against the legs of a person standing in current with a force of almost 17 psi. When the speed is doubled, however, the water pressure quadruples to more than 68 psi. And when the speed increases to 9 mph, which is still not very fast, the pressure doubles again.

Think of it this way. A victim pinned against a storm drain by moving water may have a total force exerted on him that exceeds several hundred pounds. A boat in similar circumstances would have several thousand pounds of pressure against it. Victims and rescuers alike are often overwhelmed by such forces.

Be aware of how close lightning is occurring. The flash-to-bang method is the easiest way to estimate how far away lightning is occurring. Thunder always accompanies lightning, even though its audible range can be diminished by background noise and its distance from the observer.

All incident operations should cease in an area and personnel should seek appropriate shelter when thunder is heard within 20 seconds of seeing a lightning flash (5 seconds equals 1 mile of sound travel from the lightning bolt). Personnel should remain sheltered until the incident commander issues the order to resume operations — at least 20 minutes has passed since the last lightning flash.

Before disaster strikes

Prior to spring and summer storm seasons, review areas in your response area that are prone to flooding from heavy rains with your personnel. Are there alternative response routes that your company could take to avoid those areas during heavy rains? If so, make sure all personnel understand what the driving plan will be.

Ensure that your vehicle operators understand the hazard of road washouts particularly given the gross vehicle weights of today’s fire apparatus. Avoid driving through moving water until the stability of the road can be established.

Structural firefighting clothing is not appropriate for swift water rescue operations, and can become a liability if personnel fall into the water due to the weight of the waterlogged material.

Your apparatus should be equipped with at least some basic equipment to safely, effectively and efficiently operate as first responders to a swift water emergency. Keep your folks trained and prepared for this response sequence.

  • Reach. A lightweight aluminum or fiberglass handled Sheppard’s hook is an effective tool for reaching out to a close-by victim.
  • Throw. Water rescue throw bags are a must for any emergency response unit.
  • Row. This is where you’re role as a first-responder ends. You and your crew should not take to any body of swiftly moving water, in any type of boat or watercraft, unless you all have had specialized swift water operations training.
  • Go. As with the entering water by boat, personnel must be thoroughly trained to enter the water.

In addition to that equipment, your apparatus should have the following personal protective gear and clothing for each riding position:

  • U.S. Coast Guard-approved Class III or greater personal floatation devices. PFDs provide floatation to a firefighter who accidently falls into water; they should not be used for entry into swift water.
  • Jockey-style water rescue helmets.
  • Water rescue work gloves — leather firefighting or utility gloves are ineffective and unsafe once wet.
  • Water rescue dry suits.

The purpose for carrying such gear is to provide a minimum level of personal protective equipment for the first responder so that they can operate near moving surface water for reach and throw operations. For additional information see, NFPA 1952: Standard on Surface Water Operations Protective Clothing and Equipment.

Pay extra attention to your role as the safety officer for your crew when called upon to respond to emergencies generated by severe weather, especially if the weather is still present. We may only respond to such scenarios a couple of times per year, so make sure to review your SOGs ahead of time.

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.

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