Firefighting is a difficult and arduous task when weather conditions are favorable, but when the winter months set in the normal firefighting and emergency tasks become even more difficult. Weather extremes, including both cold and heat, impact overall firefighting operations both on the fire ground and the apparatus. The cold weather in various parts of the United States (US) has a direct impact on emergency and rescue operations when firefighters are responding. Not all parts of the US are impacted by cold weather and snowy conditions - for example, Florida, California, and most southern states are minimally impacted by winter weather. On the other hand, the changing global climate has begun to impact the southern regions of the US and have also caused firefighting units to reconsider tactical operations, types of clothing, and types of appliances that may need to be used.
National Weather Service
Firefighters in the US can be warned when a winter storm is approaching. One of the levels indicating the severity of winter storms is called winter weather advisory. This advisory provides information regarding a current hazard or threat of severe winter weather including snow, freezing rain, sleet, and possible strong winds. A winter storm watch can provide firefighters with how significant the amounts of snowfall will occur normally within 24 to 36 hours prior to the actual storm. Lastly, the National Weather Service can issue a winter storm warning which indicates that a winter storm is producing significant accumulations of snow in a short period of time. This warning can vary from location to location. For example, lake effect snow is not uncommon in the Chicago area due to the proximity of Lake Michigan, north eastern winds, and abundant moisture.
Once winter has arrived in the US, the changes in temperatures and the adverse weather conditions are on the rise. It is not uncommon for black ice to form on roadways and, especially, on top of bridges. Black ice (also known as glare ice) forms on asphalt due to either streets 'sweating', freezing conditions along with rain, and normally forms a thin layer of ice surrounded by ice or snow. This makes it difficult for drivers to see the ice on the roads and is a cause of numerous accidents. Firefighters and emergency responders who are driving either fire apparatus or an ambulance will have the same types of dangers associated with road conditions. The black ice will cause vehicles to spin out of control, create hazardous walking and working conditions for responding personnel, and may remain on roads for several hours. Working in such conditions may prove to be dangerous for fire operations, pulling hoselines, and attending to patients who may need to be transported to local hospitals.
Extreme cold conditions merit more attention to apparatus than during spring and summer months where heat may be an influence on overall performance. In order for apparatus to function properly during the winter months a general maintenance schedule should be used in order to prevent freezing or locking up the pumping mechanisms. Checking the anti-freeze, heating systems, and reading the department's Standard Operating Procedures (SOPs) regarding maintaining the pump dry during extremes and then operating under such conditions should be considered. Hydraulic and pneumatic systems have a tendency to malfunction in extreme cold and can freeze or lock should proper maintenance and care not be observed.
In order to combat some of the aforementioned conditions, fire engineers may check with their chief mechanics to ensure extra chains may be available for black ice or wintry conditions, spare pumping parts are in stock and readily available in case of locking or freezing, and ensure that aerial apparatus stabilizers and ladders are able to function in adverse conditions and being placed on ice-covered surfaces. Furthermore, the captain of the apparatus may wish to take both his engineer and private to a desolate area or large parking lot in order to practice driving in a controlled environment - and one that is safer than responding to an emergency. This type of forethought will allow the personnel to practice parking the apparatus, become familiar with how the apparatus functions in such extremes, and also allows the drivers to make the appropriate adjustments for the type of adverse climate being experienced. Finally, becoming familiar with emergency lighting and proper use during an emergency response is also a good idea.
Cold weather issues not only impacts the apparatus and road conditions. Having to use appliances and tools may cause further delays in response and rescue operations. Power tools in extreme weather conditions can become brittle, not start immediately, and may also be impeded by having water contained within them, causing them to freeze and not be able to start completely. One of the major fireground safety issues that it is oftentimes forgotten is the use of ladder. Ladders that are rated and made of aluminum will eventually come in contact with water being sprayed on the fire. Eventually, the ladder rungs will accumulate water, freeze, and cause a slipping hazard for firefighting personnel on the ladders. The risk of injury is greater during the winter months due to slips, trips, and falls either from ladders being covered with ice, or walking on slippery walkways covered with ice and snow. It is imperative the Incident Commander and the Safety Officer work alongside one another in order to monitor the fireground, the hazards that may be present from the incident, and also the hazards that are caused through inclement weather conditions. One further issue that may impede firefighter performance is the use of hand tools. Using a chisel, axe, or other objects could become potential hazards. They can become slippery, fall from heights, or may not be held properly and cause a firefighter to become injured while performing a task.
Fire hydrants and snow
In many areas within the US several feet of snow can accumulate. This can cause fire hydrants not only to be hidden, but also cause firefighting personnel difficulties in opening, uncapping, and connecting hose lines to them. Several feet of snow may accumulate due to snow plows, pushing the snow into one main area where a hydrant may be located, and special access and means of regress may be necessary to obtain a hydrant suitable for firefighting purposes. In the case of a frozen hydrant, carrying a hydrant bag with a rubber mallet (small sledge hammer), hydrant wrench, and various size spanner wrenches may make it easier to open, connect, and operate a hydrant in such extreme conditions. Finally, with regards to water flow, it is important to keep in mind that hydrants can leak, causing water to pool, freeze, and create runoff in areas where the apparatus are parked. Managing water runoff should occur during the operation and care given to ensure water is not in the immediate area of apparatus. Water runoff in cold weather conditions can cause hoses to become brittle and embedded in ice. It can also cause salvaging efforts to be hampered due to water and electrical lines bursting, falling, or becoming frozen.
Hazardous weather impacts materials, goods and services, appliances, response times, and handling tools. On the other hand, the most important area of cold weather acknowledgement should be firefighting personnel. The harsh conditions of cold, snow, freezing rain, and hazardous conditions can impact firefighters and their overall stamina during an incident. It is important to have an emergency incident rehabilitation program (EIRP) established for firefighting personnel. The arduous tasks of firefighting in the cold weather also demand the replenishment of fluids, proper rest, and being able to have warm soups, broth, or hot sandwiches. In the US, American Red Cross (ARC) can provide shelters and other areas for protection from the cold and the immediate contact with the emergency scene. The ability to use facilities to go to the toilet, warm themselves, and remove wet clothing should be part of the overall rehabilitation on the fireground. The Salvation Army is a resource used in the US for providing food, beverages, and snacks to firefighting personnel and those who may be rendered homeless after the incident.
The cold weather climate in the US can make it difficult for firefighting and emergency personnel not only to respond to the scene of an emergency, but also perform the active duties that are normally required. Following standard operating procedures and ensuring that firefighter safety is the main focus during such harsh conditions is imperative. Snow, freezing rain, extreme temperatures, and frozen appliances and tools are part of the issues surrounding emergency response during the winter months. However, reviewing and training on best practice for such harsh conditions will allow the integrity of the operation and the overall safety of firefighting personnel to work coherently and minimize injuries.