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How to manage cold-weather calls

Fire departments and individual members can take several measures to make cold weather operations safer and more comfortable

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A firefighter kicks free a hose frozen onto a roof of a building after helping battle a five-building fire in Newark, N.J.

AP Photo/Julio Cortez

Departments that regularly encounter cold, snowy and icy operating environments know what to expect during cold-weather operations. However, the current frigid weather pattern has a grip on parts of the country that likely don’t include subzero operations in their training, and that means many of our brothers and sisters must work in conditions that they never planned for or thought they would experience.

It’s important to remember several measures that can be implemented by both fire departments and individual members to make cold weather operations safer and more comfortable.

Department administrators need to prepare both apparatus and personnel. Some actions that should be considered include:

  • Reviewing the rehab policy with personnel, especially company officers and command officers, to reinforce the importance of early rehab in avoiding cold-related injuries for on-scene personnel.
  • Reviewing the response guidelines with an emphasis on changing road conditions for all personnel.
  • Issuing snow melt or rock salt to stations to keep sidewalks, parking lots and aprons clear.
  • Encouraging the public to keep their address numbers visible and hydrants accessible.
  • Reminding the public that four-wheel drive does not help a vehicle stop on ice and snow.
  • Ensuring the department has a contract with a towing company capable of moving fire apparatus that may become stuck in snow or slide off the roadway.
  • Collaborating with counterparts in public works to determine if sand trucks are available in the event apparatus are unable to get traction on ice.

While the big-picture maintenance is usually the responsibility of the shop, apparatus operators and crews can do the following to get the rig ready for winter:

  • Put snow melt or rock salt in a 5-gallon bucket on the rig in case you find yourself in an icy parking lot. If those aren’t available, kitty litter, sand or even absorbent will work in a pinch.
  • Make sure you have a shovel to clear a path in heavy snow.
  • Test the cab heater and defroster at shift change and send the rig in for repair if they don’t work.
  • If your apparatus is equipped with automatic tire chains, test them at least once during a shift. Inspect manually installed chains at each shift change, repair any damaged links and practice putting them on before they are needed.
  • When operating on a fire scene or anywhere you have a charged hoseline in subzero weather, crack the nozzle to allow at least a trickle of water to flow so the line doesn’t freeze up.
  • Whenever practical, work to minimize water flow and direct it away from apparatus, Incident Command, staging and rehab areas.
  • During subzero weather, consider engaging pumps and opening the circulating valves whenever apparatus is idling or otherwise engaged. This will help prevent the pump, and possibly the tank water, from freezing.
  • If you are responding to an address that is either up or down a hill, consider sending a member of the crew before the apparatus to check the road conditions. If the road is icy or questionable, consider parking the rig in a safe location and walking into the scene, if practicable.
  • Just as you probably do when roads are wet, turn engine (Jake) brakes off or to the low setting when operating on ice or snow.

On a more individual level, there are a number of things you can do to make those cold days and nights more bearable:

  • Pack a small bag to leave on the apparatus with a pair of winter gloves, a warm hat, and a dry T-shirt. You may want to add a warm pair of socks or hand and foot warmers, too.
  • Be sure you have at least an extra hood and pair of firefighting gloves with you.
  • When possible, wear layers of approved clothing.
  • Consider packing a warm beverage in an insulated container.

This article, originally published in December 2020, has been updated.

Jon Dorman is Director of Content – Fire for Lexipol. He has more than 25 years in the fire service in both combination and career departments, retiring as the assistant chief of operations and deputy emergency manager. Dorman also has more than a decade of experience teaching in the Fire Science and Emergency Management program at Purdue University Global (formerly Kaplan University). He has a bachelor’s degree in fire protection science from SUNY Empire State College, a master’s degree in employment law from Nova Southeastern University, and a master’s degree in homeland security and emergency management from Kaplan University. Dorman can be reached at