Rurally Speaking: Are You, Your Tools and Your Fire Apparatus Ready for Winter?

Photos by Tim Olk

Carl J. Haddon

Here in the northern Rockies, we’re told to expect a winter much like that of last year. That said, last winter was an anomaly (although the old-timers tell us that our conditions here last year “used to be” the norm) that just about kicked our…. Anyway, we had way above “normal” snow accumulations that started about Thanksgiving time, and lasted well into February. Emergency access to just about everywhere was a challenge because of snow and ice. The associated flooding and ice jam problems caused by rapid thaws and refreezes of the river added to the equation.

Does your department have special winter weather challenges? Are you ready for this winter? Are apparatus tires, chain systems, 4×4 systems, snow plows, and winter hand tools all checked, serviced and ready for snow and ice? Is it time to contact your local department of transportation, and make sure that you’re synced up for highway/vehicle accident calls requiring sand or cinder trucks? Is it time to do a refresher course on emergency vehicle winter driving and winter traffic incident management? 

Things like hydraulic rescue tools need some special attention this time of year to make sure that the fluids are topped off and ensure that the proper winter fuel (mix) is at the ready for portable power units and chain saws. Pay some extra attention to your hydraulic hose couplings for unwanted dirt and debris that can make for difficult connections. Remember, it’s one thing to have to wipe junk from connectors when it’s warm and dry. It’s a whole other bag o’ cats when those connectors are wet, frozen, AND dirty. The most common cause of twin-line hydraulic tool failures is a result of blown seals and “dynamiting” that is caused by poor/incomplete hydraulic hose connections.

How are your ice rescue and dry suits looking? Unfortunately, dry rot is a fact of life when it comes to wet suits, dry suits, and ice rescue suits. Now is the time to check and double check the condition of these suits. Do these suits still fit your crews like they did last winter? I’m guessing you don’t want to get caught out on an ice rescue call with an ill-fitting suit. That’s a quick way to turn one emergency into two emergencies in a hurry. 

As we’re also about to get darker sooner with the time change, is your scene lighting in good shape? How about those chimney fire calls? If we can access the roof safely, we will often use Purple K bombs (Zip Lock baggies filled with Purple K powder) that go down the stove pipe (ONLY AFTER MAKING SURE THE STOVE DOOR IS CLOSED). This requires the use of various ground ladders. When was the last time you thoroughly checked and serviced your compliment of ground ladders? Do ladder hooks swing and lock as they’re supposed to? Dawgs work properly? Halyards in good shape? Do not overlook the flies and rails when doing your ladder checks. Remember all that candy that gets thrown from the rig during parades? While teaching at a great department “down south” a few months back, we had to take two ground ladders out of service because they had melted and rehardened caramel, taffy, and tootsie rolls that found their way into the tracks/rails of the ladders, rendering them inoperable. It was an embarrassing moment for that department, however, we caught it during training, AND I’ve found similar ladder issues at other departments. Add snow and ice to candy, and it makes for a miserable laddering experience. It doesn’t have to be candy; crap happens, and it finds its way into places on your rigs that you don’t want it to be.

Also remember to make certain that the heating and defrosting systems in your apparatus work. It is equally as important to make sure that we have a warm place for firefighter rehab from the winter cold as it is for the air conditioning to provide a place to cool off/rehab in the hot summer months. You might be surprised just how many rig heaters don’t work properly.

Don’t over look yourself or take yourself for granted when it comes to prepping for winter fire/rescue operations. I don’t know about you, but I am certainly not getting any younger, and my tolerance to frigid winter weather is not getting any better. If we aren’t adequately prepared and outfitted for winter weather response, we do a disservice to ourselves, our crew, and those we’re called to serve. I couldn’t even begin to get into the argument about wool vs. synthetic materials for heat retention and wicking. I do know that times have changed, and there are lots of really great clothing and accessory products available now to help keep us warm and dry while we do what we do. Not all of this new fabric clothing is cost-prohibitive. Do your homework, check them out, and see what works for you.

CARL J. HADDON is a member of the Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board and the director of Five Star Fire Training LLC, which is sponsored, in part, by Volvo North America. He served as assistant chief and fire commissioner for the North Fork (ID) Fire Department and is a career veteran of more than 25 years in the fire and EMS services in southern California. He is a certified Level 2 fire instructor and an ISFSI member and teaches Five Star Auto Extrication and NFPA 610 classes across the country.

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