Fighting Fires on a Bitterly Cold Night

By Joe Klemann

A blazing fire in an enclosed structure on a subzero night is bad enough. Add to the torment that you are handling a heavy high pressure fire hose covering the area with water that will soon turn to ice. You are overheating from your heavy fire coat and breathing apparatus only to be hit by the freezing night air when you step away from the action. Suddenly, all the water that covered you is now ice. Welcome to the world of fighting fires in Indiana winters.

January has not been an easy month for anyone. From those who work in the elements every day to the elderly walking to the mailbox, there have been far too many days when the thermometer dropped below zero. For the volunteer firefighters in the Nettle Creek area, there are many more issues on a fire run than just being cold.

Hagerstown Fire Chief Rick Cole explained the hazards of fighting fires in winter weather. “It takes its toll on the firefighters because they are in the cold, then the heat of the fire where they get sweaty, and then (have to go) back out into the cold.”

Often firefighters become coated in ice while applying hose streams from both interior and exterior operations. Slipping, trips and falls become huge problems as does the increased risk of hypothermia, as gear becomes saturated in ice. Even with expensive fire gloves, hands are the hardest part of the body to protect.

“You get covered in ice,” Cole continued. “We are trained to not take our gear off. The air tanks and respirators will freeze up if any moisture gets in them. You can go into a structure and suddenly that regulator freezes up and you lose air. That is an experience you do not want – when you try to take a deep breath and there is nothing there.”

Economy Fire Chief Scott Gregory can relate to that. Several years back, Economy and other departments were in Hagerstown for two nights in a row, fighting fires in subzero temperatures. The first night was a house fire on Parkway Drive, and the second was a house fire on Lamar Road. “Both nights were very challenging,” Gregory said.

“I recall my SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) mask froze before I could get to the house the first night, which meant I could not exhale properly.”

The Perry Township Fire Dept. has responded to four structure fires the past couple of months while Hagerstown received three calls on one January day: one for smoke, one a structure fire and later that night, a chimney fire. It takes a different mindset to prepare for runs when the weather turns cold.

Gregory says his department begins requesting additional resources early and often when they believe they are going to be on a scene for extended periods. He added that they have been fortunate to not have any personnel recently called upon for prolonged periods when the temperature has been below zero.

“I would have to say that losing the tunnel vision is a main concern,” says Greens Fork Fire Chief Rick Stewart preparing for winter fires. Firefighters not only must respond to the station, but develop a plan for what may face them on the scene. From a personal perspective, they also have to consider how to dress when leaving the house. “You cannot just leave in your slip-on shoes and no coat. You need to have things ready before you get the call.”

Stewart adds that when they leave the station, slick roads and much shorter stopping times cause other drivers to slide while trying to get out of the way of emergency traffic.

If an engine is required to respond, steps include engaging the pumps, letting them cycle, and keeping the water moving. And, before getting out of the truck, firefighters crank up the heat because trucks serve as warming stations while on a run. Firefighters must continually check their gear, and keep gloves and hood close by. Those little things, that help them stay warm, can greatly impact the firefighter’s ability to work in a safe and effective manner.

Not only is the cold a nuisance to the firefighter but a major concern for the department’s vehicle fleet. Gregory says his department tries to minimize their time on the scene with an apparatus that carries water because of the risk of the water tanks freezing. During fires, there are limited options other than keeping water moving in the trucks. And when responding to rural settings, using dump tanks to deliver water to the engine pumping the fire, the challenge is even greater.

Both Cole and Stewart remember a run on a very cold evening. “We went to Cambridge City on a structure fire,” said Stewart. “I remember US 40 was a solid sheet of ice. Trucks were freezing to the ground (and) electric lines were pulled off of houses. It was a mess.”

After the fire, when departments return to the station, firefighters are worn out – ready to go home and get cleaned up. But another hour or two awaits them as everything must be put back in order for the next run, including cleaning up the trucks and removing all the salt.

Gregory offered fire safety tips that firefighters continually encourage:

1. Be mindful of having working smoke detectors

2. Closely monitor heating sources

3. Combustible materials should be stored a minimum of three feet away from a heating device.

4. Close bedroom doors at night as this could provide an extra barrier between ‘you’ and the point of fire origin. “It may provide just the amount of time you need to escape before being overcome by the intense smoke and heat generated by the combustible materials found in homes today.”

Firefighters deserve the utmost respect for the hard work they do everyday, but especially in the middle of winter. Thanks to firefighters everywhere and to those who took the time to educate Gazette staff and readers.


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