Water Supply Issues in Cold Weather

Water’s a staple on the fireground, and unless you live in Florida or Southern California, water and winter don’t mix very well. In freezing conditions, water that isn’t moving will freeze. This has particularly dire implications for water supply operations. From our water supply sources to the hose and other accessories used to move the water to the apparatus and pumps, ice can wreak havoc on the fireground. Furthermore, snow and ice can also create challenges for finding and accessing water supplies.

For most of us, Old Man Winter has arrived. As the mercury falls, keep the following tips in mind to ensure your fireground operations don’t suffer.

Static Water Supplies
Fire departments that use static water supplies know that winter conditions can make accessing them treacherous. Unless arranged beforehand, access points to static water supplies might not be plowed or treated, making them difficult or impossible to access safely. Even if the supply is accessible, once frozen, it will require hard work to cut through and effectively put to use. Tip: Determine in advance the most effective tools to break ice, which may include axes and chainsaws.

If your coverage area features hydrants, there are a number of things you must keep in mind in the winter. If there’s any appreciable amount of snow around, there’s a chance hydrants are buried. It becomes important not only to be sure you know where hydrants are, but also to have shovels ready to uncover the hydrants quickly when they’re needed. Better still is to send crews out to clear hydrants following significant snows, or make arrangements with property owners to have the hydrants cleared for you.

Hydrant wrenches are critical to the use of hydrants. If your wrench gets lost in a snow bank it may prevent the use of the hydrant. As soon as the hydrant wrench has been placed on the hydrant, secure it on the nut on top of the hydrant and keep it there so it can easily be found when needed.

Remember: It’s absolutely critical that a typical dry-barrel hydrant (not a dry hydrant) be properly drained following use—especially during cold weather. It requires a few minutes after being shut down for the barrel to drain. During this time, at least one of its caps should remain off to facilitate the drainage. Cupping a hand over the outlet, you should be able to feel the suction while the barrel drains, and after the suction is gone, the cap should be replaced securely.

Note: Fire departments must work closely with their water departments and may even request that they respond to incidents involving hydrants in cold weather.

Scene Management
Pump operators need to pay close attention to their operations in cold weather. Water must be circulated around the pump, as well as flowed continuously on both the supply line(s) and discharge line(s) to prevent freezing. Pump-to-tank and tank-fill valves can be opened to facilitate water circulation in the pump. You may also crack open a discharge valve to a safe location to keep the water flowing. Remember: Wherever water is discharged, it will likely freeze. Have salt or grit ready to spread on the ice.

Water sitting in intakes/discharges can also freeze, so it may be useful to remove caps on the scene. Have spanner wrenches readily available to free frozen couplings.

When water isn’t flowing through them, hoselines can freeze quickly. Keep nozzles or other discharge devices cracked open to allow water to flow through the line during extreme cold weather. Once lines are shut down, drain and disconnect them quickly to prevent them from freezing solid. It may be necessary to have a pickup truck, stake-body truck or other vehicle to pick up the lines and return them to the station or another warm building to thaw out. Some departments in very cold climates have specialized heating/thawing equipment to pick up and restore equipment.

Weather extremes take their toll on both equipment and people. The key to averting a bad outcome: preparation. To effectively fight fire, water must be kept moving. Determine how you will maintain access to water sources and remember that winter water delivery requires extra focus on an already busy fireground. When the fire attack is complete, breaking down hydrants and hoselines properly and as quickly as possible once water stops flowing will ensure they don’t freeze up. These efforts will reduce the toll Old Man Winter takes on your fire department and community.

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