Extreme winter weather poses challenge for firefighters

Subzero temperatures and heavy snowfall present an often-overlooked danger to fire departments

A firefighter in York, Pa., on Thursday.
Jason Plotkin/York Daily Record/AP

The first major snowstorm of 2014 made its way east after pounding the Midwest, as parts of Illinois received up to 13 inches of snow and Boxford, Mass., got hit with 23 inches. But fires, more prevalent during winter than any other season, are an often-overlooked challenge amid the freezing temperatures and heavy snowfall.

Firefighters face additional health concerns in the winter. Most common among them is frostbite, which in extreme cases requires amputation of fingers or toes. Hypothermia is another major worry.

“The officers need to keep track of how beat up their people are and how tired they are and how cold they are,” Kevin Tracy, retired battalion chief of Roberts Park Fire Protection District in Illinois, told Al Jazeera. “They’ll make changes to rotate guys out so they can warm up.”

Last winter, it took more than 200 firefighters to contain a five-alarm blaze at a vacant warehouse in Chicago during freezing temperatures. Rotating the firefighters gave the rescuers the ability to warm their limbs after being exposed to freezing temperatures.

“You want to do a good job, and you’re all pumped up, and the situation itself gets your adrenaline pumped,” said Tracy. “But at the same time, sometimes you don’t realize how beat up you’ve been and how dangerous it is.”

The Fire Department of New York (FDNY) said it is ready to use as many firefighters as needed to battle challenging fires during the current snowstorm.

“In severe weather operating conditions,” Elisheva Zakheim of the FDNY told Al Jazeera, “additional units may be dispatched to an incident in order to ensure that members are relieved more quickly.”

Even the obvious dangers pose a greater risk amid subzero temperatures.

“You got to watch out for slips, trips and falls,” said Tracy. “You can break a leg or twist an ankle or worse.”

He noted that a firefighter’s turnout gear weighs 30 to 40 pounds, including tools like axes and saws that can be dangerous during falls.

Yazmin Tracy, Kevin's wife and a firefighter herself, told Al Jazeera that her biggest challenges during heavy snowstorms are accessing hydrants and making them usable.

“Our hoses get frozen during the winter,” she said. “Our clothes could get frozen, but I’d say the hydrants are the biggest problem. I carry flares to heat up the hydrants if it’s frozen to get access to water.”

Locating the hydrants, making them accessible and unfreezing them takes time and can delay rescue time, which is why a second fire engine on the scene will begin the same process at another hydrant, she added.

Another concern is the condition of the burning structure. Water used in spraying the building in below-freezing temperatures often turns to ice, adding more weight — and instability — to the structure.

Firefighters’ equipment can also freeze.

“I remember one fire where I had such a coating of ice on my turnout gear where I had to physically take a metal tool and break the ice on my pants,” Kevin Tracy said. “Everything freezes. Everything’s a sheet of ice.”

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