By Michael P. Capoziello
Winter’s coming. Just like the members of “House Stark,” one should always be prepared. With apologies to “Game of Thrones,” let’s discuss some winter thoughts to contemplate while responding and operating on the fireground during the coming winter months.
Something seldom talked about but an “essential tool” to the volunteer firefighter is your automobile. Make sure your privately-owned vehicle (POV) is in tip-top shape for winter response mode. What’s that mean?
Well, if you have not had one in a while a good winter tuneup may be in order. Check tire tread and make sure your car heater and defroster are working right. Replace wiper blades if needed. Try to keep your gas tank at half-full and add a gas line antifreeze additive to your tank a few times during the winter months.
Here’s a trick I have also used and it works well: ice proof your car windshield by using undiluted white vinegar. Spray or wipe down the windshield before you shut down for the night and when you must respond overnight or in the a.m., your windshield will be free of ice and frost. Nothing worse than a delayed response when you are faced with the need to chisel out your front windshield.
Refrain from responding to the scene directly in your POV. It’s going to be bad enough for the rigs to get down the fire block in heavy snow conditions without having to negotiate around POVs of members who went directly to the scene.
Arrival at the Firehouse
Once at the station, be mindful of icy ramp conditions as well as wet apparatus floors that can cause serious slips and falls. If you keep your gear on the apparatus floor near the rig, make sure it stays dry and avoids any water runoff from accumulated ice and snow melting from the undercarriage. Those of you in older firehouses know the “pitch” of the floor and can anticipate where water will pool up. Avoid storing any items in these locations.
Responding with the Rig
Like your POV, the rig should also be looked over before winter arrives. Tires, fluids, windshield wipers and lights all should be ready for the winter. If you use automatic chains or full chains on your apparatus, make sure the system or chains are ready for use.
When driving fire apparatus or ambulances, give yourself plenty of room for stopping and always slow down and prepare to stop when approaching intersections. This is especially important during snow and icy conditions. The other driver may not be able to control their car approaching a red light no matter how slow they may be going, sliding through intersections and into the path of apparatus.
Use extreme caution and judgment when taking the rig into heavy, unplowed snow-filled streets. Your big rigs can get stuck. If you have maintenance staff, or even a member with a plow of their own, have them run with you to alarms and clear the way. My department does this and it’s amazing what they can do.
Most importantly, when you get behind the wheel make sure you let the road conditions dictate how you will respond and not the alarm type.
On the Fireground
Once on scene, take extreme care with operations. The playing field is not the same.
Take into consideration longer hose stretches, especially if you rely on pre-connects. Remember you may be operating in very adverse conditions. What you pull on a normal day may not reach the fire on a snowy winter day with added obstacles and the possibility of the rig parked much further away than normal.
After extinguishment, keep hose lines opened slightly when not in use so they won’t freeze. Have pails of salt/sand ready to spread around the scene as well as around pump panels. Think about using your stokes basket as a toboggan and drag needed tools up to the scene if the snow is very deep. Use extra care when placing and climbing portable ladders.
Chiefs and ICs think about using buses for rehab at incidents where you may be operating for extended time periods. You could probably prearrange an agreement with your local school district so they won’t be caught off guard with a request of this nature. Make sure your dispatcher has the right contact info to make this request.
Try and create a winter response bag for yourself with dry socks, sweatshirts, sweatpants, underwear, watch cap and extra pairs of gloves. Throw the bag on the rig somewhere. You never know when you might need “dry stuff.” A packet of hand warmers might also come in handy.
Keep a shovel on the back step to shovel buried hydrants if needed. Some departments send an engine company to respond with ambulances. Crew members from the engine can clear a path from the back of the ambulance to the front door if needed as well as help with the lifting and removal of the patient. Remember, during snow standbys the troops want to be busy.
Without a doubt, conditions are going to slow you down. Don’t fight it, go with the flow and work with and around the conditions you are faced with.
Happy New Year, be safe and keep ‘em rolling.
Michael P. Capoziello is a 30-year member and former chief of the Elmont Fire Department. He is a training officer, public information officer and department historian. A supervising dispatcher at Nassau County Fire Communications FIRECOM and a training officer on the fieldcom unit, Capoziello is also a 14-year member of the Nassau County fire service Critical Incident Stress Management Team.