Summer is over. For some it was nice, while others dealt with record flooding, severe wildfires, drought, and other problems. As the season turns from fall to winter in the United States and Canada, some of these other problems have subsided and new challenges will be presented. Unless you live in the southern reaches of the country, there is a good likelihood that you will be dealing with freezing conditions this winter. Some forecasts are calling for another harsh winter, with maybe the worst El Nià±o conditions ever, which may result in heavier than normal precipitation and perhaps above-normal temperatures. Some of you may already be experiencing wintry conditions, and I would still be willing to bet many will see some bouts of freezing temperatures that can cause havoc with fireground operations.
If you haven’t already begun to prepare for winter, now is the time to get your preparations in full gear-just in case! If you can’t get there, you can’t help anyone. Do you have tire chains, automatic or manually applied? If so, pull them out and check them out to make sure they are in good condition and work before they are needed. Perform any recommended maintenance on the automatic chains. Ensure that all of your drivers are familiar with the use of these devices, when they should be deployed, and to operate the apparatus when they are deployed.
Provide grit/sand/ice melters on the rigs for use. Work with your public works/roads departments in advance so that they are prepared to support you getting to or around at an incident. Do you have the means to communicate with them when needed to get them going in the right direction? For vehicles parked outside, including department cars and call firefighters’ personal vehicles, consider an old blanket or similar device (there are some that are commercially available) to cover the windshield, side windows, and mirrors during periods of ice/snow.
Water is a principal ingredient on the fireground, and unless you live in a warm climate, water and winter don’t mix very well. In freezing conditions, water that isn’t moving is quite likely to freeze. The colder it is, the faster this will happen. Frozen pumps, piping, couplings, and hose can all result in particularly dire implications for water supply operations, as well as potentially permanent damage to the frozen equipment. Furthermore, snow and ice can also create challenges for finding and accessing water supplies.
Pump operators need to pay close attention to their operations in cold weather. Water must circulate around the pump, as well as flow continuously on both the supply lines and discharge lines to prevent the pump and the hoselines from 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 there, so try and discharge the flow into a location where ice formation won’t cause a hazard. Carry containers of salt or grit ready to spread on the ice, which is also useful for nonfire situations where traction is needed. Plastic buckets or containers that were used for other liquids can be cleaned out and reused as salt/grit containers to be carried on apparatus.
Water sitting in intakes/discharges (from leaky valves, etc.) can also freeze, so it may be useful to remove caps on the scene. Have spanner wrenches readily available to free frozen couplings.
Hoselines can freeze quickly when water isn’t flowing through them. 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, or flatbed truck to pick up the lines and return them to the station or another warm building to thaw out to prevent damage from cracking or similar physical force placed on it.
This is true for other frozen equipment as well. Some departments in very cold climates have specialized heating/thawing equipment to pick up and restore equipment. Keep extra pairs of socks, gloves, hoods, and other equipment available for deployment to fire scenes so that personnel can quickly change into dry clothing if they get wet on a winter fireground; provide a bus, building, or other place for them to warm up when needed on the scene. This will help maintain your most important asset-your people.
Static Water Supplies
In very cold conditions, expect your water supplies to be frozen. 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. Get that help from your public works department rolling. Even if the supply is accessible, once frozen it will require hard work to cut through and effectively put to use. Even the use of chain saws or axes may be necessary to access these supplies. Be very careful having firefighters in full turnout gear operating around bodies of water, even when iced over, if you can’t be certain that the ice is fully capable of supporting a firefighter working on it.
If you are fortunate to have “real” hydrants, there are a number of things you must keep in mind in the winter. They could be frozen, and it is vital that your firefighters know how to drain them following use to be sure they aren’t frozen the next time they are needed. 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 only be replaced securely. You may want to let your water department know about hydrants used in freezing weather so they can service the hydrants if necessary.
If there’s any appreciable amount of snow around, there’s a chance that 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 hydrant quickly when it’s needed. Better still is to send duty crews out to clear hydrants following significant snows or make arrangements with property owners to have the hydrants cleared for you. Having shovels handy might be needed should the apparatus have to be dug out.
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.
Weather extremes take their toll on both equipment and people. Yes, it doesn’t freeze everywhere, but some places get very cold temperatures, and others that aren’t used to it might be surprised by a sudden cold snap. Remember that not only will your equipment freeze up, but fire buildings will as well once you put the fire out. If a building has burned, and heat is no longer present during freezing weather, notify the water department to respond to secure the domestic water to the property. This can prevent water pipes from freezing later.
The key to averting a bad outcome is good preparation. Make sure your winter equipment is ready to go-now-and spend some time reviewing winter operations with your firefighters. Prepare 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.