The older we get, the less we enjoy cold weather operations. However, if you live anywhere but a few southern states and Hawaii, cold weather is inevitable. Thus, we offer some cold weather tips for engine company operations.
Personal preparation is imperative. You have to find the happy medium between wearing enough clothes in the firehouse to stay warm yet not too many clothes that cause you to overheat when you have your turnout gear on and are exerting yourself at a fire. Being sweaty and cold is just as miserable as being wet and cold from the hoseline.
For operations that require multiple rotations into the building, it is your preference whether to allow your gear to thaw. We always prefer allowing the ice to remain on the exterior of our fire clothes rather than allowing it to melt and soak through. We may be crazy, but it seems warmer and less miserable that way. Be sure to keep a change of clothes on the apparatus in a gym bag or backpack. Include sweatpants, a sweatshirt, extra gloves, a T-shirt, a warm hat, and several pair of socks. It’s also a good idea to carry extra fire gloves and protective hoods during this time of year. When returning to quarters, change out your turnout gear if you are lucky enough to have a second set. If not, before you go home, take your fire clothes apart and arrange for them to dry by the time you return for your next shift.
The apparatus will also need some additional attention during cold weather: If you are going to wash the apparatus, make sure you dry it thoroughly. Doors and discharges will freeze. Be careful not to wash down the discharges and intakes, making the caps nearly impossible to remove. Bleed the moisture from the air reservoirs daily; open the air bleeder valves until you remove all moisture. Make sure the heating system works before the worst of the cold weather sets in. If you have leaky valves that allow water to lay in the discharge lines, get them fixed so they don’t freeze. Drain the pump in quarters as well as all intakes, drains, and valves. This will require the driver to open the tank-to-pump valve when charging a line to prime the pump. The pump primer may also need to be activated to expel all air from the pump.
Make sure your apparatus chains are in good working order. If you have drop-down chains, they are convenient and always available on the pumper. In heavy snow conditions, we found we stop relying on the drop-down chains and stick to the old fashioned heavy chains that we permanently put on the apparatus. Make sure your chains are properly sized for your tires and in good repair. Heavy chains are good for major snow and ice accumulations while the cable type is better for light snow and ice.
Drivers should obviously use caution commensurate with road conditions and keep in mind the capabilities and limitations of the skid chains. Our chains restrict driving speeds to 35 mph. It is advisable to have some wire available when the heavy chains are in place to secure broken links to prevent body damage to the apparatus; cut-up wire clothes hangers work well for this purpose.
Company officers will need to be vigilant to ensure the water supply will not be interrupted during cold weather. Check fire hydrants regularly for water and pump them out if necessary. Thaw any frozen hydrants you find immediately. You can thaw hydrants using two short sections of 2½-inch hose attached to each hydrant discharge. Attach one hose to the engine’s discharge and one to the engine’s intake and circulate water through the hydrant to thaw. This takes about 15 minutes, depending on how badly the hydrant is frozen. Also, uncover hydrants after large snowstorms. Snowplows are notorious for throwing snow and covering the hydrants. Get out and drive your district and dig them out. You may have to do this multiple times a day for several days in a row.
Most everything slows down in the cold-our response is no different. The only thing that doesn’t slow down is the fire. Adding an engine to the initial structure fire dispatch may be a good idea, even if you turn it around most of the time. When you need it on the scene, you will be happy you had the foresight to start it early. Call for additional alarms earlier in extreme weather, especially the winter. The fire will not cut you any slack just because the roads are icy and slick. The most basic tasks can become extremely difficult with a few inches of snow on the ground.
Securing a water supply may present an issue. Just finding a hydrant may be difficult if you haven’t unburied your hydrants. The firefighter connecting to the hydrant should be equipped with a shovel and a pickax to make the connection. Stretching the attack line will be more difficult in slippery conditions. You may not be able to ideally position the apparatus because of snow accumulation, and it may require a longer stretch. This is another good reason to add an engine to the response to assist with the longer stretch.
Once the fire has been extinguished, you need to keep the water moving to prevent it from freezing in the hoseline. You can accomplish this by cracking the nozzle to keep the water moving in the hose and through the pump. Occasionally, hoselines may become frozen. You can place frozen sections of hose in the bed of a ladder truck and return to quarters. You can thaw frozen couplings on the scene using the exhaust from the apparatus. (This works for self-contained breathing apparatus couplings as well.)
Be prepared for fire suppression systems to be ineffective because of freezing or broken pipes because of freezing in the system. Also, be prepared to perform alternative stretches in standpipe-equipped buildings if this problem presents itself.
Prepare and be proactive for cold weather operations. Find your happy place between too cold and too warm until it is just right in your fire clothes. Pay extra attention to the apparatus, and keep the hydrants in your district accessible and in service.
Stay toasty, friends.