A Message From The 2nd VP – January 2023

I hope everyone had a Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year. Winter has hit us hard as temperatures have been cold, in some parts of the state as low as -40 wind chill. In this article, we will stress on winter operations for fire departments and tips fire departments can use this winter.

As winter is upon us, the fire service is left to contend with additional demands due to heavy snowfall and extreme temperature conditions. The hazards and complications of winter firefighting can be overcome by firefighters developing a basic understanding of those hazards and conditions and properly preparing for them beforehand.

Year after year, responding to and from emergency calls is one of the leading activities being performed in studies of firefighter fatalities. Cold weather, contributing to extreme road conditions, will only increase the amount of risk that we are exposed to.

Preparing for winter response starts with making certain that our apparatus is ready and in top operating condition (as it should be at all times). In particular, drivers/operators should make certain that they are familiar with the operations of window defrosters, heat vents, and brake retarders on their particular apparatus as well as their department’s guidelines for operating a “dry” versus “wet” pump during winter months.

Coating the threads of any fittings or port caps with straight antifreeze will help prevent them from freezing without damaging any gaskets and should be performed as needed in daily vehicle checks. A spray bottle can be filled with antifreeze and kept on the rig for this purpose.

Increased stopping distances, decreased visibility and unpredictable actions of civilian motorists can all be expected in extreme weather and will have a negative impact on response. Routes of travel to alarms will need to take snow/ice removal and accessibility to the incident into consideration.

Is there a plan in place to have the public works department assist the fire department with snow removal resources in the event of an extreme winter storm? Discussing this and having a plan in place before needing it will be advantageous.

Taking the proper precautions necessary in extreme weather is going to cause extended response times. How will this influence the actions of the first-due companies? The important point to remember – the fire department is of no value unless it can arrive on the scene safely.

Once having arrived on the scene, the company officer will have to make critical decisions on the commitment of the apparatus. Questions that need to be considered: are tactical positions attainable or are they blocked by snow banks? Are additional lengths of hose needed to be added to pre-connected lines to make it to the building? Can personnel access all sides of the building and are there any hazards or obstacles present that are not visible due to snow or ice such as stairs, drop-offs, or in-ground swimming pools?

Are fire hydrants visible and accessible – both before and after streets are plowed? Firefighters should ensure hydrants are accessible after severe storms before they freeze by routinely checking on them and clearing snow from them. Attaching flags or a marking device that sticks up in the air can also make it easier to spot a hydrant covered by snow.

Once finding the hydrant, is it usable or frozen? Small hand-held propane torches can be of great use to free frozen hydrant caps or hose couplings during cold weather and should be placed on the rig for winter months.

Once committed and flowing water, engine companies will need to keep water moving in some manner to keep hose lines, ladder pipes, valves, and pumps from freezing solid. Static water will freeze readily as we already know at 32 degrees Fahrenheit but if enough movement is provided, water will not freeze spontaneously until the ambient temperature reaches -40 degrees Fahrenheit.

Water as we are aware exists in the states of a solid (ice), liquid, and gas (steam). The major factor that differentiates these three states is the motion of the molecules that comprise water. When heat (as in the form of friction caused by movement) is added, its molecules will move faster and freely interact. As water freezes, the movement of molecules slows down and begins to align in a crystal-like structure resulting in ice. As water freezes, its density (or mass per unit volume) will also increase until it reaches a solid crystallized state. If water is constricted as in a hose line or piping when this expansion of mass takes place, the pressure exerted can cause costly damage. For this reason, keep nozzles, deck guns, ladder pipes, etc. partially open with water flowing until ready to shut down and pack up. Hose lines and ladder pipes should be drained and picked up immediately when they stop flowing water and are no longer needed.

Slips and falls are other prevalent hazards during cold weather operations. The soles of many firefighting boots worn will become harder in colder temperatures preventing them from gripping the ground. Removable cleats or spikes that slip over boot soles can be advantageous in this situation.

Water on the ground from cold weather operations will also create an increased potential for slips and falls. Sodium Chloride or road salt is commonly carried on fire apparatus due to its ability to impede ice formation. Road salt is often applied to the ice once it is already formed. Unfortunately, the salt must first be dissolved before it can work effectively. Salt works by breaking chemical bonds and preventing water molecules from aligning in the crystal state that we talked about. If salt is applied before water freezes, it will be readily dissolved and will effectively lower the freezing point of the water. Sand can also be thrown onto the ground to improve traction.

Rehabilitation resources and additional alarms should be requested as soon as possible. The rehab location should get firefighters out of the elements, be located away from vehicle exhaust, and concentrate on providing hydration through warm fluids.

One of the most overlooked ways of protecting ourselves from cold stress is through proper hydration. This needs to take place before responding to an incident to make certain that our body’s systems are working at their best. Vital functions of our body will shut down when not properly hydrated. During work cycles, it is recommended that a firefighter drink at least a quart of water per hour.

Firefighters will only be able to battle the elements for short periods in extreme weather due to stress and shorter work cycles should be adhered to. Turnout gear does not allow for effective heat dissipation and sweating from performing fireground activity can lead to shivering and a lowering of the body core temperature. Body core temperatures falling below accepted levels can cause severe injury to firefighters without them even realizing what is happening to them. Stress from the cold decreases cognitive reasoning as well as focus.

Frostbite is caused by parts of the body being exposed to extreme cold. It can result from a very short time of exposure if cold enough. Fluids contained within exposed body part freeze causing blood vessel damage and necrosis or death of tissue in the affected area. Several factors contribute to the severity of frostbite, the temperature to which the exposed part is exposed, the length of time in which the body part is exposed, and the condition of clothing covering the exposed area (is it wet or dry?).

Most often the hands, feet, ears, and face of a firefighter are most prone to frostbite. Frostbite will appear as changes in skin appearance as discoloration (white or gray) and will be accompanied by numbness and stiffness in the affected area. Often a patient experiencing frostbite will not even realize it due to accompanying numbness. The best way to prevent frostbite is to protect the skin from direct exposure to cold air. Firefighters should dress in layers of loose-fitting clothes beneath their turnout gear. Materials of these clothes should allow evaporation of perspiration and not be restrictive to compromise the body’s circulation in helping to keep the body warm. Two pairs of socks and properly fitted footwear are also recommended.

Hypothermia results when the body’s core temperature falls below normal. Firefighters suffering from hypothermia will exhibit shivering, confusion, extreme fatigue, and drowsiness.

The best way to prevent hypothermia is also to dress in layers beneath turnout gear and to keep moving when working on the fireground to maintain a good level of circulation. Firefighters should make certain to keep their heads covered with a hat or hood when working in cold weather. As much as 50 percent of the body’s heat can be lost through the head and wearing a hat will help to minimize that loss.

Firefighters should also replace any wet clothing immediately as wet clothes will cool down the body’s core temperature much quicker than air alone. Keeping a bag with a dry change of clothes, extra gloves, socks, and hats on the apparatus is a good idea during winter months.

In addition to the obvious fall hazards, ice will present other hazards and problems on the fireground.

As water is applied to a burning structure it will freeze and not run off. As more and more water is applied, ice will cause additional weight and stress on structural members increasing collapse potential.

Locks and halyards on ladders can become frozen making them inoperable or difficult to move. Aerial ladders can become caked with ice increasing weight loads on them resulting in failure or twisting of the ladder.

Cold weather can take a toll on firefighters and the equipment that they use. With proper pre-planning, training, and awareness, the hazards of extreme winter weather firefighting can be reduced to allow safe operations on the fireground.

These are just a few tips on winter operations and also for protecting our firefighters. As your 2nd Vice President, I would like to thank you for your membership to the FFAM and the benefits we have to offer. Please spread the word about the FFAM to departments in your area that are not members and tell them about the great benefits we have to offer. If the FFAM can be of any assistance to you or your department please feel free to contact me and I will be glad to assist you. I can be contacted by email at grant_oetting@yahoo.com or my cell phone at 660-229-4525, if I don’t answer please leave me a voice mail. Until next time…..Be safe my brothers and sisters.