18/05/2024 7:22 AM

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Weather can be second foe for firefighters battling blaze on frigid winter day

Darting in and out of a smoke-filled building in search of occupants and scaling a ladder to the roof as flames roar is dangerous work, even in the best weather conditions.

Add frigid temperatures, whipping wind and falling snow, and the dangers multiply dramatically for firefighters trying to save lives and property.

Fires break out year-round, but the majority in the United States occur during winter — when conditions for battling them are likely to be at their worst, according to the American Red Cross.

More house fires occur in the winter because of faulty or overworked heating systems, space heaters, holiday decorations and poorly maintained chimneys, according to the National Fire Protection Association.

Faulty heating systems are the second-leading cause of U.S. home fires after cooking-related fires, data collected by the organization shows. From 2014-18, one in seven — or 14% — of all home fires were caused by heating systems, which include stationary and portable heaters.

“There’s always a lot more challenges to deal with when working a fire during the winter,” said Ed Saliba, 54, a volunteer firefighter for 37 years and chief of the New Kensington Fire Department.

“It’s one thing to have a little breeze when you’re fighting a fire in 60-degree weather. But when you get a slight breeze on a cold day, it doesn’t take long before you have that wind burning your face. And once you start throwing water on a fire, the spray causes ice to accumulate everywhere. It makes a hard job even more difficult.”

Saliba recalled fighting a fire in subzero temperatures that turned crew members into living ice sculptures.

“When a lot of the guys got back to the station, they couldn’t get their turnout gear (protective outerwear) off because the clasps were frozen,” he said. “They had to use a broom to beat them loose. And when they took the clothing off, it was so encrusted with ice that it stood up on its own.”

The fire-resistant protective clothing firefighters wear can help keep them warm when it is frigid outside, but “it only works while you’re moving,” Saliba said. “Once you stand still for a few minutes, you’ll be freezing.”

Dr. Brendan Mulcahy, whose emergency medicine training included a stint at Allegheny Valley Hospital in Harrison, said fighting fires in winter can take a toll on the body.

“Carrying gear across snow and ice is harder, and the hose becomes more rigid and difficult to manage in the cold, so you’re exerting a lot more energy,” he said.

The extra exertion is a concern because cardiovascular disease kills more firefighters than any other cause, said Mulcahy, 32, of Ross.

He began volunteering as a firefighter while growing up in St. Marys and joined the Berkeley Hills Fire Company in Ross while attending college in Pittsburgh. He is a member of Ross/West View EMS.

Firefighters also suffer from going back and forth between extreme cold and heat, which “puts all kinds of strain on the body,” said Mulcahy, who works at Allegheny Health Network’s hospital in Wexford.

The adrenaline rush firefighters experience also can work against them when their bodies are under stress.

“Adrenalin is the body’s natural way of ignoring a symptom,” he said. “And when adrenaline is pumping, you’re more likely to be hesitant about reporting a symptom or taking a break to recover and care for yourself.”

Emergency medical services that respond to fires with “rehab” units can play a vital role in protecting firefighters by providing warming tents and health monitoring, he said.

Working on a rooftop with axes, pike poles, chainsaws and high-pressure hoses can be a balancing act when the water is streaming across slippery shingles. When that water freezes and starts turning the roof into a skating rink, it can become a deadly dance.

“It’s too dangerous to walk on an icy roof,” Saliba said. “You have to slide ladders with hooks on the end that lock onto the ridge. Sometimes you need to put a couple of them side-by-side and create a sort of bridge across the roof to get around.”

Poor road conditions caused by the weather can delay response times and put crews at greater risk as rig drivers strike a balance between getting to the scene quickly and getting there safely, said Tom Bell, chief of Greensburg’s volunteer fire department.

Even though fire trucks are heavy vehicles that are fitted with tire chains during the winter, they can crash like any other vehicle when the speed is too fast for road conditions, he said.

Road conditions also can delay volunteer firefighters trying to make their way to the station house to answer a call, Youngwood Fire Chief Lloyd Crago said.

Bell and Crago said they try to plan for those kinds of obstacles.

“When we know there’s going to be bad weather, we try to get some of the firefighters, or at least a driver, to remain at the station so we can respond more quickly,” said Bell, 54, who began volunteering as a firefighter when he was a teen. “We also carry salt on the truck that can be spread to melt the ice that accumulates from the water spray.”

If conditions become too treacherous, a municipal public works crew can be dispatched to clear roads and spread salt, Bell said.

Once firefighters arrive on scene, weather becomes a second foe as they trudge across ice and packed snow to dig out buried fire hydrants, stretch hoses and raise ladders.

In addition to the snow and ice already on the ground, hose nozzles are cracked open enough to let water trickle when the temperature dips below freezing to keep them from locking up, said Saliba, the New Kensington chief.

But solving one problem often creates another.

As water spreads across the ground and turns to ice, the chances of getting hurt from a slip and fall increases, Crago said.

“The biggest safety issue for firefighters in the winter is the ice,” said Crago, who has been chief for 34 years. “I’ve seen more firefighters injured from slipping and falling on ice than anything else.”

To avoid losing crew members to injury, safety officers are stationed around the perimeter of a building to monitor ground conditions, Bell said.

Fire crews also carry portable kerosene heaters that can be used to defrost ice-jammed equipment or keep personnel warm.

“The pump operator really takes the brunt of the weather on a cold day because they have to stand in one spot, and there’s usually water spraying all around them,” Bell said. “So we use the heaters to not only keep them warm but to make sure that the connections and pipes don’t freeze up.”

Bell said second and third alarms often are struck during winter firefighting operations because personnel can quickly become fatigued.

“Once you really start feeling the cold, you’re just about spent,” he said. “It’s physically impossible to recover from that quickly.”

Tony LaRussa is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Tony at 724-772-6368, [email protected] or via Twitter .