Fire and ice are polar opposites that firefighters manage during winter fire season.
Combining these two powerful elements presents unique health and safety challenges for winter firefighting.
We share some tips to help firefighters on the front lines navigate slick conditions and address body temperature regulation issues when fending off freezing temps.
Dress for success
First stop, Alaska.
Staying warm in the face of bitter wind chill and frigid temperatures in this region is tricky business for firefighters.
“We get extreme temperatures around minus 40 degrees Fahrenheit several times in the winter,” said Fire Chief Douglas R. Schrage, EFO, CFO, with University of Alaska, Fairbanks, and a Warren B. Cummings Fire Chief of the Year Award recipient, February 2020.
Having enough layers to stay warm during winter firefighting is your best defense against bone chilling temperatures, said Schrage. Layering with the right materials matters too.
“Our firefighters’ undergarments need to be 35% cotton which is safer. If they were to become engulfed in flames, polyesters would melt to the skin,” Schrage said.
Second stop, Idaho.
Charlie Butterfield, M.Ed., CFO, is deputy chief of operations with City of Meridian Fire Department near Boise, Idaho. Butterfield spent many years in Sun Valley, Idaho, a mountain town with punishing winters. And with a nearly 6,000-foot elevation gain from sea level, breathing challenges are real.
One thing Butterfield doesn’t miss — traipsing through menacing snow drifts donning 40 plus pounds of turnout gear — heavy boots, helmet, hood, gloves, and an air tank. “Treacherous,” is how he described it.
“If you have three to five feet of snow, it makes it difficult to do a 360 perimeter of the structure, to get an idea of how big the building is and assess other exterior concerns,” Butterfield said.
Snow slow and ice hazards
Hunting for fire hydrants buried under mounds of snowpack slows down firefighting efforts. Digging them out with a shovel is standard, Butterfield said. Plus, the icy roads dictate slower drive times when operating an 11-ton fire engine.
Icy conditions also present slip-and-fall hazards for firefighters climbing on icy ladders, Butterfield said. Firefighters must take their time to ensure proper footing, to be sure. Crews must also watch for icicles on roofs and trees.
Equipment can pose another obstacle. Firefighters deal with frozen hoses, couplings and gauges on the pump panel, Schrage said. Using the engine’s tailpipe to thaw equipment may be a standard practice, but he advises against it.
“The tailpipe exposes firefighters to carcinogens from diesel soot,” Schrage said. “We use a propane torch instead, it’s just another tool to carry in the truck.”
To prevent ice buildup in the fire hose, Butterfield uses a trickle method. “If you shut the line down completely, and it sits for a while at 10 below zero, those lines can freeze up. Always make sure water is constantly moving, keep the line cracked and always dribbling out.”
Firefighters also are exposed to a myriad carcinogens, and turnout gear traps a host of dangerous chemicals.
At the end of a day, when the mission is complete and it’s time to leave the scene, Schrage’s crew is required to remove outer garments before hopping into the fire engine. This prevents the transfer of chemicals from their gear to inside the truck.
“When it’s really cold, they have to do this really quickly…it’s a real challenge,” Schrage said.
Winter firefighting body temp reminders
Firefighters constantly prepare their bodies for the physical demands of the job. Proper hydration is key all year long. However, drinking enough fluids helps the body stay warm in the winter, Schrage said.
“We try to make sure our firefighters are well hydrated and not to consume too much caffeine, which affects your ability to stay warm.”
To help stay warm on cold days, watch for excessive sweating. It typically becomes problematic during winter firefighting when you stop moving or exertion stops, Schrage said.
“When they are not producing as much heat and their body temperature comes down, moisture will wick away more heat from them, it’s called evaporative cooling,” he added.
As a reminder, dehydration contributes to hypothermia. Wet clothing also contributes to hypothermia, so it’s important to always have an extra change of dry clothes.
Frostbite is a big concern
But firefighters are usually more concerned about frostbite, than hypothermia, Schrage said, adding that the engineer standing at the pump is more susceptible to frostbite.
Frostbite signs include numbness, tingling, and skin discoloration. As the condition worsens, watch for clumsiness and disruption in fine motor control.
Maintaining hand dexterity is a big challenge in the winter, making easy jobs more difficult.
“Holding axes, closing nozzles, rope work, and using a chainsaw becomes more challenging if your hands become cold, wet, and frozen,” Butterfield said.
Portable hand warmers can slow the bone chilling cold from setting in, and many fire departments provide them.
“We supply handwarmers,” Schrage said. “It’s an obligation I have to keep our firefighters protected.”
When the fire crew can’t take another second of the biting cold, Butterfield sends a few to the backup ambulance that serves as a warming station. With the heat cranked up, it’s a welcome respite on those long nights when no one wants to be left out in the cold.