Nearly 750 gallons of water slosh in the back of an Owensboro Fire Department engine as it hurdles across town to a nearby emergency. Driving the truck is one challenge. Keeping the water from freezing whether inside the massive pumper, on the valves that attach to hoses or on protective outerwear is an added challenge brought on by very low temperatures.
"When you're using water as your main bullet in combating a fire situation, overspray and hazardous weather conditions can multiply quickly," Battalion Chief Steve Leonard said.
Last week at fire station No. 1 at Ninth and Locust streets, firefighters reviewed how to prepare equipment for cold-weather operations by ensuring there is constant water flow in the pump and reviewing the points of hose attachment that could freeze up.
Battalion Chief David McCrady said the most important part of the training was refreshing the hazards that firefighters face, such as hypothermia.
"We could leave it up to chance and say, 'It's cold today; be careful,' " McCrady said. "They've got common sense but it's better to have everything prepared up front and use all of the guidelines and resources available."
McCrady said he has been in situations where his gloves would have frozen solid if he had taken them off, and Assistant Chief Bill Van Winkle said when icicles start forming from firefighters' helmets, it can mean they will also have a difficult time undoing frozen buckles on protective clothing.
"Every time we go to work it's an extreme condition whether it's a nice day or not," Van Winkle said. "While we're used to working in extreme conditions, the cold weather and freezing waters make it that more difficult."
McCrady said many people don't realize that when rain or hose mist starts freezing on trucks, it weighs them down and means the ladder trucks can handle less weight.
While protective outerwear commonly begins to freeze from the rain, McCrady said even the steps on ladders become increasingly dangerous with an added sheet of ice.
Even the moisture that can gather in a firefighter's face mask has been known to freeze.
"Moisture in a face mask can make it difficult or impossible to breathe," McCrady said.
When weather is not at an extreme low, many motorists panic and don't know what to do when a fire truck approaches behind them. McCrady said sometimes they will slam on their brakes, and on the icy roads, truck drivers have to be extremely cautious.
While response times can see added weather-related minutes, Leonard said there are more fire-related deaths in the winter for a number of reasons.
"People are inside their homes more which increases the potential for an accidental fire," he said. "And because of the cold, heating units are being taxed which results in heating-related fires."
Leonard said he has seen firefighters remove protective outerwear that could stand on its own because of the frozen water, and stressed the importance of an annual cold weather review.
"Firefighters put more gear on to protect them from the elements which makes it harder to work and they can only work for shorter periods of time," Leonard said. "But they must be careful because the temperatures increase their exposure to frostbite or hypothermia, which is extremely dangerous with jobs involving life safety."
Written by Messenger-Inquirer
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