Wednesday, January 28, 2015

Major snowstorms bog down firefighters too

   Every time there’s a major snowstorm, folks empty out food stores stocking up for a few days of possible isolation, or hardware stores of all manners of snow shovels, blowers, and scrapers. It’s just accepted -- and expected -- that calling 911 will bring help “just in case.”  

   Fire departments prepare for such emergencies, but one old saying might be appropriately altered to read, “Snow happens.” No matter how much you try to prepare, a couple feet of snow, or extended periods of sub-zero temperatures are going to have an effect on how crews will be able to respond, perform and even wrap up afterwards.

   In one such blizzard in the Chicago area in 1979, a quickly developed SOP called for ambulances responding to medical emergencies to be preceded in traffic by an engine literally clearing at least passable tire tracks for the ambulance to negotiate.  It added time to any response -- time that can be crucial in a medical emergency -- but it at least help assure that the equipment would arrive rather than get bogged down in snow.

   Another challenge with a couple feet of snow falling in a short time is finding a fire hydrant. Major snowfalls, coupled with plowing activities, quickly buried thousands of fire hydrants under massive piles of snow.  Once the snow was over, a hydrant that was buried even as little as one inch was just as invisible as one buried in a 10 foot pile. In the event of a fire, searching for an available hydrant could prove devastating as a building burned with no water available.

   In our ’79 blizzard, all hands were called back on duty and all were assigned on a 4 hour out, 2 hour rest schedule to any available public works or non-emergency fire vehicle to dig out literally every hydrant in town.  Armed with a water system map and shovels, crews used a 6 foot long metal rod to locate hidden hydrants.  Guided by the water map, which showed the “general area” where hydrants were located, we stabbed here and there until feeling a telltale metal response and started digging. It took fire crews, on overtime, 72 hours to dig out every hydrant in town. Fortunately, no actual building fires were hindered by a buried hydrant.

   Sub zero temps offer still more hazards. The pumps on fire engines carrying their own water supplies would freeze up if not previously drained in severe freezing weather. If not, the pump could not...pump water.  Once drained, however, it would function but may take a couple of valuable minutes to prime before the pump could actually function.

   Fire streams created thick layers of ice on firefighting gear, sometimes making it near impossible to bend your legs or elbows until a fellow firefighter helped “break the ice” at your joints to allow greater movement.  After the fire, fire hoses froze in place and were impossible to roll up again. They had to be folded in large spaghetti-like spindly sculptures and loaded into the back of pickup trucks to be returned to the station to be thawed out and cleaned.

   And you can be sure that NOBODY ever stuck their tongue on a hose nozzle.