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Winter Firefighting

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By John Morse

When it comes to winter we think about ice and snow, traffic jams, and being cold.  Firefighters deal with all that getting to work, but the real problems come after you get to work and you get called out a few times. What might have been simple in the nice summer weather is a whole different thing in the snow, ice, and cold.

If you live and work somewhere that doesn’t have winter weather you can either stop reading now, or read on and count your blessings.  The first thing we deal with going on a call is the snow and ice on the roads.  There are really two parts to this problem; the first is what it does to traffic and cars on the road.

There are two different kinds of drivers in the snow, some are over-cautious and some drive with reckless abandon.  There will be cars stuck in the snow, and other cars stuck in the traffic. No matter what there will be more obstacles for you to get around getting to calls.

One of the best things you can do to your rigs is make sure they have good wipers and that you have clean windows.  A normal vehicle check gets a simple OK for the wipers without anyone seeing if the properly clean the windshield.  When you need the wipers is when you find out they need to be replaced.

Cars slide around on the ice and very often they get out of control.  Most people haven’t had the thrill of being in a fire engine as it slid sideways down the road, but I have.  The spinout comes pretty fast, totally unexpected, and when that big rig is sliding, it feels like it is never going to stop.  Thankfully that only happened once.

Fire hydrants present a few problems in winter.  The most obvious is that they water in them will freeze making them useless.  A properly maintained and operating hydrant will drain out any water in the barrel and work without any issue.

If a hydrant isn’t completely closed the drain under the ground will not open and the barrel will be left full of water.  Freezing temperature will make that hydrant useless.  Depending on your department policy, you might decide to see if the hydrant flows water before leading out your hose

Water tanks on apparatus are commonly drained in extremely cold temperatures to prevent it from freezing.  That is a good thing, but what about all the little bits of water still in the piping on the engine?  Draining the tank does nothing to keep the valves and gauges from freezing.

Make sure you open the bleeders and let all that water drain.  Dry off the inside of the caps and spray them with some kind of oil or anti-freeze spray so that you can get them off without water freezing them in place.

Some firefighters enjoy the cold because there is an old tradition in the fire service that you can’t wash a rig if it is too cold out.  The “too cold” part is kind of vague.  Even though 30 degrees is below freezing, there isn’t much chance of a compartment door freezing shut at that temperature.

I think a logical temperature to not wash a rig would be about zero.  You can even wash a rig and drive it in the cold if you dry the hinges well and leave them open in the station to let them dry.  The only time doors freeze shut is if there is a lot of water left on the hinges and latches.

Cold weather adds to our workload, and being in the cold is pretty draining.  When the weather is extreme, be sure and slow down on the other normal station activities so you have enough left in your tank to do your job and also enough to deal with the weather.  Slow down, stay warm, and have fun.

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