Cold Weather Preparation

Issue 12 and Volume 6.

As you start to read this piece on cold weather operations, your first thought is probably, what does a guy from Texas know about fighting fire in cold weather? Well, I’ve been around long enough to know that when it does get cold, I’m not too good at handling it—and that most departments could stand to improve their cold weather operations.

Surprising to some, we do get cold weather in the South and Southwestern parts of the United States. The good thing is that it doesn’t stay long, but the bad news is that when we do get it, we’re not as prepared as we need to be. Fire departments in the warmer areas of the country simply don’t have the cold weather experience of our counterparts in the north, and our equipment isn’t designed to face sub-freezing temperatures. So it’s a big deal when we get snow or when it gets really cold for a few days.

The only way we can handle those cold weather events is with proper planning and preparation prior to the weather event happening. Because you can’t replicate cold weather conditions, I’ve departed from providing an actual drill and instead touch on some points to consider for cold weather ops.

Be Ready
Don’t wait for the temperature to drop or for it to start snowing to prepare. Making sure you have things in order weeks or months ahead makes a big difference. Recently, the East Coast received a Halloween snowstorm that knocked out power and caused havoc for millions. Although they’re used to snowstorms, I’ll bet there were still some departments in that area that didn’t plan for such an early occurrence.

When winter storms roll in, items you need to stay operational—like tire chains and road salt—will also be needed by the public, and may be in short supply if you react too late. Have some on hand year-round and restock before you actually need them.

I know you have a computer and a TV in that station, so look at the long-range forecast and plan for the worst. If the forecaster turns out to be wrong, you’ll be ready for the next time.

For those of you who have a lot of cold weather experience, the next few items may be no-brainers, but they’re worth mentioning.

  • Carry extra pairs of dry gloves and socks on the apparatus. This will make a big difference during an extended cold weather operation. Keep them in a zip-lock bag and place them on the truck at the start of your shift. Volunteers who don’t ride the same apparatus every day can store them in lockers or gear bags.
  • Keep a sweatshirt in your locker to wear during cold weather. Dress in layers so you can put on or take off as conditions warrant or remove damp items as needed.

Hydration & Rehab
Sound rehabilitation practices are just as important during cold weather as they are on hot days. We need to encourage hydration and monitor the amounts of fluids our crews are taking in. The use of warm fluids can also help, but be cautious with the amount of caffeinated drinks like coffee or soft drinks. It may also be a good practice to keep a box of energy bars available to help with the fatigue of cold weather firefighting.

Have a plan in place to get your troops out of the elements and somewhere they can warm up. Many departments run a rehabilitation unit out to incidents when the weather conditions warrant it. Rehab units can be anything from a dedicated vehicle to an extra apparatus on scene—if firefighters can get in it and warm up, it will suffice. 

If you’re the incident commander (IC), remember that just like in hot weather, it’s important to rotate crews in and out of the work zone earlier and more often than in normal operations. Remind company officers to watch for signs of fatigue in their personnel, because as fatigue increases, so do accidents.

The IC should also remember to call for ample resources to relieve crews and note that it may take longer to get them on scene due to weather conditions. Call for help early and often.

Slow Down
All of our training and fireground operations should be focused on ways to reduce and eliminate accidents. When the weather brings ice and snow, we must step back and make changes to our normal response plans. Getting to the incident is one of the most important factors we’ll need to consider, especially for those of us who don’t have much experience driving on ice or snow. Even a small amount on the roadways can create big changes in how the apparatus operates—and we also have to watch out for all the civilian vehicles.

Slowing down may be the best thing you can do to get your company to the incident. And it doesn’t apply only to driving; you should also reinforce how important it is to slow down on the fireground or roadway incidents during cold weather. With ice and snow on the ground, it’s easy to slip and fall, which becomes a big deal when you’re working a car wreck with entrapment and handling heavy tools while trying to keep your feet. During bad weather, use dry absorbent or salt to improve footing. Take time to make the area as safe as possible.

Whether or not you live in an area that gets lots of cold weather, you still need to be ready for low temperatures and/or ice and snow. Prepare for cold weather before it sets in with the necessary tools and equipment. And remember: Even if you live in the South or Southwest, there’s a good chance that at some point this winter, you’ll be a cold weather firefighter.