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Fire and ice

Area firefighters cope with difficult fires and brutal weather conditions
The challenges of firefighting are only magnified during the winter months as snow, ice and bitter cold affect firefighters and their equipment, and also affect their water supply. (March 1992 photo by Chris Umscheid)

JOHNSON COUNTY– Area firefighters, largely volunteer, have dealt with not only a number of challenging house fires, but also brutal sub-zero cold and dangerous wind chill factors. Extreme conditions are not unusual for firefighters as they routinely work in one of the most Immediately Dangerous to Life and Health (IDLH) environments possible; a “working” structure fire, where flames, toxic smoke and the potential for structural collapse are among the risks. Adding the aforementioned weather conditions, firefighting becomes even more hazardous. The Solon Economist and North Liberty Leader asked area fire departments about the additional challenges.

Q: How do you alter your operations for winter’s snow and cold?
A: “The extreme cold and heat have an adverse effect on personnel. Ensuring response personnel have proper gear is paramount. Specific to extreme cold temperatures, once a firefighter is removed from the burning structure, if they were performing operations in which they were exposed to water, they are susceptible to freezing gear and freezing SCBA (Self-Contained Breathing Apparatus) masks. The gear becomes a crusty shell, which can actually insulate the body for a short period of time. Once this gear starts to thaw it becomes soaking wet, which adversely affects the body temperature. Also, once an SCBA mask freezes, the components need to be thawed and then dried prior to being placed back into service. Departments will ensure extra gloves, SCBA masks, (Nomex) hoods, etc., are brought to the fire scene for use.” – North Liberty Fire Department Chief Brian Platz

“We prepare ahead of time by ensuring our members have additional clothing and spare gloves, socks, hoods, etc., to replace wet ones during an incident. We replace work crews more regularly on-scene and check their status to ensure they are able to perform before reassignment to another task. We keep vehicles’ heaters running to help thaw out frozen SCBA and personnel when that becomes necessary.” – Jefferson-Monroe Twp. Fire Department Chief Glen Heims

Chief Platz added, “Water will often freeze under apparatus (trucks) or around the structure. This can exacerbate the frequency of falls or slips. Using sand trucks and oil dry on slippery surfaces can help in reducing these situations.”

Q: Please describe the additional challenges you face in responding: snowy roads delaying (volunteer) firefighters getting to the station, increased response times once you’re on the road, etc. Also, for rural fires, any contingency plans for county plows/sand trucks to clear a path if/when needed?
A: “There’s no question that when the roads are more difficult to traverse, emergency response times become longer. Safe driving procedures are very important no matter the weather conditions. Because thoroughfares are typically better maintained during winter weather conditions, responders will maintain an awareness of that fact and plan their routes accordingly.” – Chief Platz
“You mentioned most all of what we do and are concerned about. We remind our members to respond to the station (located outside of Swisher) carefully and safely in regards to the weather/road conditions. We attempt to keep any delays to a minimum while still providing all services expected of us. We have our trucks equipped with automatic chains for the tires to get grip in icy/slippery conditions. We work with the road crews and call them when necessary due to the ice we inevitably create on a fire scene. We sometimes need to utilize our four-wheel drive vehicles during poor road conditions.” – Chief Heims

Q: Describe the challenges on-scene with ice/snow, freezing/frozen equipment, keeping firefighters warm, dealing with the potential for a frozen hydrant/trouble accessing a water supply, etc.
A: “Subzero weather has a negative impact on everything. There are no guarantees that our ‘normal’ approach will be successful. We have to be ever vigilant and always have ‘Plan B’ ready should a hydrant not work or if something mechanical breaks down.” – Chief Platz
“Neither Swisher nor Shueyville have municipal water supplies (fire hydrants), so our situation requires us to haul in all of the water we use for firefighting. This is often hampered because some of our water supplies are lakes or ponds that are frozen over. If so, we are forced to either cut a hole in the ice, or drive (tanker trucks) further to utilize a hydrant from a mutual aid agency’s fire hydrant. Add this additional travel distance for tanker shuttles to the winter road conditions, and delayed water delivery is a serious concern. We have worked with both communities to establish plans for future water supplies to be added as developments are added to these communities. Discussions of creating a municipal water system for these areas have recently gained momentum and we are hopeful will be coming in the near future.” – Chief Heims

Q: Have weather conditions been a factor in any of the recent fires you’ve responded to? If so, how did they hamper your efforts?
A: “On the night of the fire south of Shueyville (New Year’s Day night) water was freezing very quickly. This made filling tankers very difficult as hose appliances would freeze within seconds. Gauges were starting to freeze, which made for difficulty in ensuring water supplies and (pumping) pressures were appropriate. Turnout gear (firefighters’ protective clothing) and air masks were also freezing, which made their use very difficult.” – Chief Platz
“New Year’s Day we responded to a chimney fire in -17 degree temperatures. Knowing the weather issues and distance to an available water supply, we called mutual aid agencies immediately for assistance. We were going to need additional tankers for water, especially if the extreme cold caused issues. We were going to need relief for firefighters who would inevitably become too cold and have frozen equipment. We knew the brotherhood of firefighters would be willing to help us, as we would if the tides were turned. As it turned out, due to the good response, water access was not an issue. I was able to have fresh crews regularly and the many hands made for much less individual work. JMFD is VERY thankful for our neighbors’ assistance.
Though the dispatch said this was a chimney fire, what we found was a house with the backside mostly involved (in fire), the basement heavily involved and the attic quickly becoming consumed. The outcome: though much was lost due to the advanced stages of the fire upon arrival, we were able to stop the fire in time to salvage many of their possessions including some valuable items they cherished and needed the next day/week.” – Chief Heims

Q: Any fire safety/winter safety tips you would want to emphasize?
A: “Remember to keep a 3-foot clearance around any heat producing appliance (space heaters) or fireplace. With the frigid temperatures, many kids are unable to play outside and are then subjected to being inside with limited activities. There have been two fires in the area over the past few weeks which were caused by children playing with lighters. Keep the lighters in a safe place, and be vigilant as to how your children are passing the time. Lastly, as snow accumulates, take the time to adopt a fire hydrant. Keeping the snow cleared from hydrants can save precious time should there be a fire in your neighborhood.” – Chief Platz
Reporter’s note: A general rule of thumb is to clear three feet of space around the hydrant, allowing room for a firefighter to connect a hose and operate a hydrant wrench to turn the hydrant on.
“A few reminders:
1) Check your smoke detectors regularly, replace their batteries every time you change your clocks for daylight savings time.
2) Check/service your furnace annually.
3) Clean/check your chimney annually.
4) Please MOVE TO THE RIGHT and slow down or stop to allow emergency vehicles to get past.
5) Do your community a favor and volunteer for your neighborhood fire department.” – Chief Heims

The United States Fire Administration (USFA) also recommends the following:
Never use an oven or stovetop to heat your home.
Always use a metal or heat-tempered glass screen when using your fireplace.
All heaters need space– keep anything that can burn at least 3 feet from heating equipment, and turn space heaters off when leaving the room or going to bed.
Cooking is the main cause of home fires and fire injuries. Keep an eye on what you fry. Stand by your pan. Turn pot handles toward the back of the stove. Wear short sleeves or roll sleeves up. Keep a pan lid or cookie sheet nearby to cover the pan if it catches on fire.
Keep anything that can catch on fire– oven mitts, wooden utensils, food packages, towels and curtains– away from your stovetop.
In case of an oven fire, turn off the oven and keep the door closed until it is cool.
For more fire safety tips: https://www.usfa.fema.gov.