Responding in Cold Weather

Issue 12 and Volume 4.

With winter quickly descending upon us, we thought we’d put together some suggestions your engine company can use to weather the cold this season. We’ve grouped these tips into four categories: personal preparedness, apparatus maintenance, response considerations and on-scene issues.

Personal Preparedness
Preparing for the cold weather begins at the start of your shift. You must be properly dressed for the weather you’ll encounter. This can be difficult, since wearing a lot of extra clothing around the firehouse can be uncomfortable. The key: finding the right combination of station clothing and fire clothes to maintain warmth on the fireground, yet not be too hot when actively engaging in fireground operations.

A balance that works well: Wear regular station uniforms throughout the shift, which enable you to be comfortable in the fire station and when performing regular duties like inspecting, maintenance and training. When we go out in extreme cold, we wear PPE. We always carry clothing to change into or apply in extra layers for extended duration incidents.

You should also have a cold-weather gear bag (gym bag or backpack) stored on the apparatus. The gear bag should include an extra pair of firefighting gloves; an extra hood; a T-shirt, sweatshirt and sweatpants (or other change of clothes); a pair of winter gloves; and a good winter hat.

Apparatus Maintenance
Extra attention to apparatus maintenance during cold weather is critical. Prior to the onset of cold weather, check and test your apparatus heating system to ensure it will function properly in the winter. Checking the system prior to the winter season will allow the city garage ample time to repair the system and order replacement parts if needed. Tip: The apparatus can be used as a rehab/shelter area during extreme weather.

Leaking valves that allow water to drain from the tank into the pump or into discharge piping can also be a problem when the weather turns cold. Get the valves repaired to prevent them from freezing and causing a problem on the fireground. All air reservoir tanks should be bled of moisture at least daily to prevent the moisture from freezing, including those in the air brake system.

In quarters, the operator should drain the pump and all associated valves, intakes and drains. Running with the pump dry will require the operator to open the tank-to-pump valve to prime the pump; they may have to use the pump primer to bleed air from the pump.

Firefighters must ensure an uninterrupted water supply by continually checking hydrants to make sure they’re dry and not frozen. Companies must also dig out hydrants after major snow storms to make sure they’re accessible.

Many apparatus have automatic drop-down chains for traction during winter weather. If your apparatus is equipped with this type of system, check it thoroughly prior to the winter season. If your department doesn’t have drop-down chains or if you experience high levels of snow accumulation, carry two sets of winter skid chains: a lightweight cable-type chain for light snow and ice accumulation and a heavy set for larger amounts of accumulation and hilly terrain.

Inspect and repair chains prior to winter, and take the time to review with your company how to install the chains. Remember: The most important factor regarding response in winter weather is to arrive on the scene safely. We can’t help anyone if we don’t arrive! Slow down and increase stopping distances when responding, even when using tire chains.

On Scene
As discussed above, just getting to the scene can be problematic. You may want to consider adding an engine to your initial alarm since response will be delayed and you could encounter problems with water supplies. The additional engine will also be available to assist in deploying the handlines through snow and ice or if the first-arriving engine can’t access the street due to road conditions and a long hose stretch becomes necessary. During heavy snowfalls, firefighters securing a water supply must be adequately equipped with a shovel and pick axe to clear the hydrant.

The cold weather is especially concerning to engine company operations since we do most of our work with water. The water itself becomes an issue when the temperature drops below 32 degrees. Not only do we face slip and fall dangers due to ice, but the water freezing in the hoseline can also become a problem. Stock 5-gallon buckets of salt on the apparatus that you can spread to reduce the accumulation of ice around the engine when it’s pumping. When hose couplings become frozen, thaw them using the heat from the apparatus exhaust. SCBA couplings can also be thawed using this method.

Keep water moving through the hoselines and engine to prevent them from freezing; however, try to prevent this water from running on ladders or walkways. Recirculating water through the pump and keeping the nozzle slightly cracked can accomplish this goal. If hoses do freeze and cannot be loaded or rolled, they can be disconnected and placed in the bed of the ladder truck for return to quarters.

Fire protection systems may also be rendered useless by the cold weather. “Wet” sprinkler systems in buildings that have been vacated or have piping in unprotected areas can freeze and fail, allowing the fire to progress past the incipient phase. (Note: Outdoor areas such as sports venues and garages feature “dry” systems that shouldn’t freeze unless the dry valve has failed and allowed water into the system.)

Standpipes can also freeze, requiring the hoseline to be stretched from the engine to upper floors in the building, further delaying extinguishment.

In addition to the weather adding to the dangers we face, our customers will be looking for innovative ways to heat their home or the abandoned building in which they live. Be aware of warming fires in abandoned buildings or apartment owners who turn on the oven and all the burners on the gas range for heat.

Brace Yourself
As the cold weather comes, we may be tempted to hunker down and “hibernate” through the worst of it. But as firefighters, we don’t have that luxury. Get personally prepared for winter now, and make sure your apparatus is ready to go as well. Remember: Stay safe and stay warm!