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December 13 2003            Command concerns for wintertime firefighters

By Patrick Pauly

December brings the most wonderful time of the year. Children look forward to the joys of Christmas and time off from school. Many religions celebrate the greatest event of their existence. In many parts of North America weather becomes a carnival of glistening snow and beautiful scenes. But for the fire departments of those areas life is often very cruel, extremely demanding, and physically exhausting. From December until April many firefighters will be called upon to perform their duty in conditions that are less than enjoyable.

Each and every one of us knows the benefits and advantages of proper diet, regular exercise, and practicing healthy habits. We know that alcohol, tobacco, overeating, and lack of exercise are all part of a long term bad body. Regardless of our fire department affiliation, the emergencies we respond to do not take pity on us. Working structure fires, motor vehicle accidents, automatic alarm responses, and rescue assignments along with EMS assists or responses keep coming each and every day. 
Our job as fire fighters is never an easy one. Cold, wet, windy conditions just add to the concerns of our personnel. Healthy emergency responders tend to give the public we serve a better chance when they are in their time of need. They also give themselves a better chance of safe operations and a return to quarters without accident. Persons in command, supervisory, and/or management positions should encourage the troops to be prepared. Leading by example is always the best policy.

Arriving at the fire station for shift, or for a call as a volunteer is the first part of our concern. Extra time should be allowed for our trip to work when the weather is cold and roads are slippery. A vehicle that will not start can be frustrating. Early departure may allow us to have someone jump-start our car or pick us up on his or her way to work. Volunteers have the challenge of not knowing when their next call may be. They should keep the vehicle well maintained and ready for cold winter days and nights. Driving to the scene or station should be done safely and at legal speeds. Sometimes it is difficult to maintain a safe and legal speed when the adrenaline is flowing after a dispatch. Seeing a column of smoke or hearing such words as “working fire” or “with entrapment” always pushes us to go a little faster. Deep snow, icy roads, and wind conditions make our response dangerous even at safe speeds. Maintaining a cool head and a “light foot” is to everyone’s advantage. Chief officers responding ahead of apparatus can advise of road conditions.

When the rigs depart the station the same good measures are prudent. Although apparatus may be equipped with automatic tire chains or traditional tire chains, traction is not always good. The winter road is an unsafe highway. Even during non-emergency operations our vehicles are still large, slow to stop, and subject to sliding. Take the necessary precautions to arrive safely.

Functioning at the emergency scene becomes very interesting during the cold periods of the year. Fire fighters are subject to the same dangerous conditions they always face at emergencies plus they have to deal with falling rain or snow, wind, slippery conditions, and low visibility.

Structural fire incidents present so many bad conditions because of the weather. Firefighters are subject to frostbite, exhaustion, exposure, and body core temperature changes. Dressing appropriately will help avoid these problems. We should be wearing proper PPE for the incident. Wearing it correctly; that is utilizing items like collars, earflaps, and hoods will help prevent cold weather exposure injuries. Simple things like fastening the snaps or closing a zipper make a great deal of difference. 
Rotating personnel is another way to keep the responders warm, dry and safe. Utilizing rehab services and mobile shelters is a way to assist the fire fighters and other emergency scene workers. Although most of us prefer a hot cup of coffee or hot chocolate, other fluids such as water are usually better for us. Slippery ladders, roofs, driveways, and sidewalks are reason to go slowly and with caution. Drifting or deep snow and piles of shoveled snow make our approach and operation tough. Blowing snow makes seeing where we are going and what we are trying to do much harder. When we have knocked down a fire or extinguished it, all too many times we begin undressing in an attempt to cool down. 

Caution must be taken to be sure we do not cool down too quickly or colds, fevers, and pneumonia may set in. When picking up after these calls, hose, ladders, and other items may be frozen in ice, sometimes several inches thick. Caution should be practiced when we attempt to remove these items from their position. Even fire apparatus can be “stopped in it’s tracks” by snow and ice. Moving these vehicles always calls for extra safety including a person to watch behind us if we back up. Maintenance department personnel or wrecker operators may be the safest and quickest way to free up stuck apparatus. 

Incidents along the highways such as motor vehicle accidents or vehicle fires warrant more attention in winter weather. The same slippery surfaces we had to drive on cause difficult walking. Visibility is difficult for not only us but also all other drivers along the highway. Training all fire department personnel in “highway scene safety” programs is a must. It aids us in all weather conditions and is needed even more during these winter conditions. Having the extra warning devices, detours, and trained people goes a long way to assuring our safety along these roadways. Positioning of emergency apparatus is critical. Improperly placed fire apparatus and private owned vehicles of fire personnel that drive to the scene make any incident on the road a dangerous one. Too many emergency responders have been injured or killed by oncoming traffic. We need to do better with our preparation and on-scene activities.

Long-term outside incidents can be made a little more tolerable with extra dry clothes at the station or even on the apparatus or rehab vehicle. Carrying extra sweatshirts, dry socks, and gloves can be very comforting and allow us to return to duty with a warm, fresh start. With a fresh start comes added safety. By simply changing from wet clothes to dry ones during rehab or a break, we prevent sick days for career fire fighters, or prevent volunteer firefighters from missing future calls.

Responses that are not considered by some as challenging or breath-taking still mean additional winter hazards. EMS assist calls and automatic alarm responses still require us to drive on slippery roads and operate in wintry conditions. Becoming complacent with these incidents invites disaster.

Returning to quarters after a winter call is a welcome occasion. The chance to warm up, dry off, and possibly change clothes helps insure our good health. Be careful not to forget that equipment must be restored and serviced for the next call. Many times we get too comfortable only to be unprepared when the next emergency occurs. Apparatus and companies should be placed available only when they are truly ready for response.
 During the most severe conditions, hose may have been left in several inches of ice. Replacement of this hose onto apparatus will take some time and effort. Personal protective equipment may need to be dried or temporarily replaced if possible with spare turn out gear. Just like any other time, during or after any other call, a suspected injury including possible frostbite should be reported to your supervisor immediately. Proper notation of time and cause should be done per department policy.

Those of us that are tasked with being chiefs, line officers, managers, or commanders have the responsibility of making sure our people are safe. Taking the extra time and effort to make sure this happens in the cold and blustery times is one more thing we must do. Even those of us that may no longer be officers or have never been but are veteran fire fighters must look out for our younger less experienced people. They rely upon our years of experience to help them. Although many fire departments experience jokes and horseplay towards young fire fighters, these folks are the future of our organizations. Taking good care of them and teaching them the safest and best ways to operate during winter conditions insure our long-term survival. Encouraging our fire fighters to do little things that make them feel good goes a long way towards very positive attitudes. If officers take care of their people, the people will take care of their officers.

All of us enjoy the warm weather that springtime brings. Let’s be safe in all of our wintertime activities, especially the emergency response ones.

About the author: Patrick Pauly has spent nearly 34 years in the fire service. He is employed full-time as a Fire Service Education Specialist at the Pennsylvania State Fire Academy, teaching and coordinating the activities of the Resident and “Academy On The Road” training programs. His main topic areas are structural fire fighting, safety and survival, and fire fighter rescue. As a volunteer he spent 31 years in the Lewistown, PA Fire Department, the last 7 as Deputy Chief. He is currently 1st Asst. Chief with the West Granville Fire Co. Pat is nationally certified as a Fire Fighter III, Fire Instructor II, and Fire Officer I, and was a PA Certified EMT for 26 years. He holds an Associates degree in Computer Science Technology.