Trainer's Corner: Cold-weather reminders

Cold-weather reminders
December 12, 2007
Written by Ed Brouwer
28For all of you veteran TOs this will be old news, however, it may prove to be a good review and a particularly useful one for volunteer departments. At first glance, cold-weather fire fighting is nothing more than regular fire fighting, the only difference being it is cold outside.

Rehydration and rest are particularly important in extreme termperatures.

However, it is not quite that simple. In most parts of our country, at this time of year, firefighters must deal with additional demands on their emergency apparatus and on themselves, physically, due to heavy snowfall and extreme temperatures. 

When responding to an emergency in sub-zero temperatures firefighters need to be aware of the impact of cold-weather conditions on personal safety. 

Fighting the elements and working on icy surfaces starts the moment the bay doors open. For paid on-call members, the battle begins as they respond to the hall in their personal vehicles. 

Winter road conditions can adversely affect fire apparatus handling. Firefighters should be trained to deal with increased stopping distances, decreased visibility and the unpredictable actions of other motorists. Apparatus operators should consider the need for alternate routes in case of inaccessibility to the incident due to snow. Extreme winter conditions will cause longer response times. It bears repeating: first responders are of little value unless they arrive on scene safely. 

Once on scene, the IC must take into account seasonal hindrances to access and placement of apparatus. Do snow banks block access? Is there ice on the stairs? Are fire hydrants accessible? Are there hidden hazards under the snow? 

Water on the ground during cold-weather operations will create an increased potential for slips and falls. Be aware that some of the water applied to a burning structure may freeze on the building. As more and more water is applied, ice will cause additional weight and stress on structures, increasing the potential for collapse.

Using SCBA during extreme cold-weather operations may cause some safety concerns. Although it is important in any situation that BAs are properly checked and maintained, certainly a little more care should be taken in winter months. It wouldn’t hurt to dedicate a practice night for emergency procedures in the case of BA failure.

It is imperative that BAs are properly checked and maintained.  Firefighters should be thoroughly familiar with emergency procedures in the case of BA failure.

As far as on scene considerations, the IC should request additional resources as soon as possible. Firefighters may only be able to battle the elements for short time periods in extreme weather.

As well, your members – in particular your RIT – should be aware of the signs and symptoms of frostbite and hypothermia. Please don’t forget about the danger of frostbite. Fluids contained within an exposed body part can freeze, causing blood-vessel damage and necrosis or death of tissue in the affected area. Frostbite will appear as changes in skin appearance or discoloration and will be accompanied by numbness and stiffness.

Several factors contribute to the severity of frostbite:

  • The temperature to which the exposed part is exposed;
  • The length of time which the body part is exposed;
  • The condition of clothing covering the exposed area (wet or dry?).
Most often the hands, feet, ears and face of a firefighter are most prone to frostbite. The best way to prevent frostbite is to protect skin from direct exposure to cold air.

Hypothermia results when the body’s core temperature falls below normal. Firefighters suffering from hypothermia will exhibit shivering, confusion, extreme fatigue and drowsiness.

I know it sounds like a broken record, but firefighters should replace wet gloves as soon as possible. It’s also a good idea to keep a change of socks in your gear bag or on the apparatus during winter months. Try to dress in layers under your PPE. 

Cold weather can definitely take a toll on firefighters and the equipment that they use. With proper pre-incident planning, training and awareness, the hazards of extreme winter-weather fire fighting can be reduced to allow safe operations on the fire ground.

In our profession, we are called upon to perform a number of important tasks, in a wide range of weather conditions. Your dedication as training officer to firefighter safety, whether through inovations or simply reviewing old, time-tested procedures, is what makes the difference every day on the fire ground.

Until next time, stay safe out there.

Ed Brouwer is the chief instructor for Canwest Fire in Osoyoos, B.C., and the training officer for West Boundary Highway Rescue. The 18-year veteran of the fire service is also a fire warden with the B.C. Ministry of Forests, a first responder, level III, instructor/evaluator and fire-service chaplan. E-mail: This e-mail address is being protected from spambots. You need JavaScript enabled to view it

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