October 26, 2021

Firefighters cope with cold, ice

As temps drop, chiefs share insight into winter operation changes

Colin Spencer/staff reporter

Capt. Matt VanHeusen of the Cortland Fire Department shows a salt bucket carried in a fire truck Thursday inside the Court Street station.

When a call comes in for an emergency at the Cortland Fire Department, firefighters must respond no matter the winter weather: subzero temperatures, heavy snow, slippery roads. Fires can mean 1,200 degrees on one side, and 12 degrees on the other.

“It just changes the whole environment,” said Fire Chief Wayne Friedman. “You have to be careful of ice and everything else.”

Snow is the most apparent aspect of responding to calls in winter, Friedman said, but snow isn’t usually the biggest problem.

“Most of the time we don’t have issues with the trucks going around the city as the Department of Public Works keeps the streets clear,” he said.

The biggest difference in relation to responding to calls deals with water and the cold, Friedman said. Water from hoses and sweat can freeze on the firefighters after they leave the scene of a fire, risking frostbite.

Additionally, the frozen water from hoses can create slick streets and sidewalks, making them a hazard to travel on.

To deal with these issues, Friedman rotates his crews to stay warm and make sure to have salt buckets in the trucks to salt streets and sidewalks of a scene.

The season is just beginning — with a foot of snow followed by near-zero temperatures — but Friedman said he wasn’t sure of how COVID might change his precautions. Still, all firefighters must wear masks, and scene commanders may send fewer people into buildings on some calls to reduce risk of exposure.

Winter safety

Homer Fire Chief Mahlon Irish provided these winter safety tips:

  • Keep fire hydrants clear of snow at least 3-feet in each direction.
  • Make sure home exhaust vents for water heaters are clear.
  • Clear sidewalks of snow.
  • Clear driveways of snow wide enough for fire trucks.

Homer Fire Chief Mahlon Irish said the biggest difference for him in responding to calls in the winter, especially where there is a fire, is access to water.

Neighbors with a fire hydrant nearby need to remove the snow — at least 3 feet away to give the hoses access from all sides.

“What we really need is them cleared from the hydrant to the street,” he said.

For calls to rural areas, accessing water may mean having to break through ice in a pond or other body of water.

Equipment as well can be harder to use in colder weather, he said.

One of his best tools is planning. If a snowstorm is expected overnight, Irish said he may have firefighters at the station, rather than at home, to prevent delays getting to the station.

Additionally, he, as does Friedman, tells his firefighters to dress in layers and have warm, clean clothes for when they return from a call.