MOUNT VERNON — Being a firefighter is a challenging job as it is, but at this time of year, the men and women who battle these blazes have an additional issue. The bitter cold temperatures.
The weather in the past two weeks has fluctuated and the temperatures have dropped below freezing in the last several days. Precipitation during those lows then can cause the roadways and driveways to be treacherous, which becomes a challenge for the fire and emergency vehicles as they answer calls in the more remote areas of the county.
Earlier this week, five different fire stations worked together to battle a single family structure fire in eastern Knox County and, according to Captain Brian Durbin of the Eastern Knox County Joint Fire District, ice and slippery conditions altered the plan of attack.
Monday, Durbin explained that the first truck on the scene on Weber Road encountered ice on the way up the hill to the house and the team had to stop and run hoses the rest of the way, which was approximately 500 feet. He said that when they approached the scene, they didn’t know the driveway wasn’t maintained and their first truck didn’t have chains, but they tried it anyway. After the fire was contained, that same truck had difficulty leaving, getting stuck on ice and in mud at the same time.
Sometimes, fire crews know the conditions beforehand or are familiar with the driveways and plan ahead.
“Hopefully when the call comes in, we know something about the situation – maybe a long driveway or a unkept driveway — ahead of time,” said Fredericktown Fire Chief Scott Mast, who was also at the blaze Monday. “So potentially, we could run our first truck out being the grass truck with a snow plow on it, plow the drive and clear the way for the rest of the trucks. We’re fortunate that all of our big trucks have automatic tire chains on them so if we get into an icy driveway situation, we can throw the switch, drop the chains and help ourselves with the driveway.”
Once the temperatures dip, most people bundle up before venturing outside, but firefighters don’t necessarily need extra clothing at a fire.
“Typically, you’d just wear your normal turnout gear,” Mast said. “Because if you’re being active, fighting a fire, your turnout gear is designed thermally so you don’t really need anything extra when you’re in fighting the fire. You’re staying warm and that environment is warm.”
“That’s on the inside, but if you’re operating outside like maybe running the engine or running a tanker, the guys will use their Nomex hoods to help insulate the majority of their face. Some guys will carry a beanie with them, but in general, you’re pretty much just using your standard turnout gear.”
In subzero temperatures, water also has its own set of challenges when fighting fires — not only on the roads, but on the scene as the firefighters battle the blaze.
“Water is your best friend and your worst enemy on a fire scene,” Mast said. “Best friend because that’s how you’ll put the fire out and worst enemy because obviously as soon as it hits the ground, from overspray and whatnot, it starts freezing. You’re also getting it on yourself, then it starts freezing and your turnout gear starts to get stiff. A lot of engines will carry a bag of salt and they’ll throw it down on the ground as the ice builds to help out the situation. But still — it’s tough.”
The equipment also starts to have difficulty functioning properly as the water contacts it when the temperatures are in the single digits.
“Like we experienced (Monday), of the two trucks we had out there, we had freezing problems on both those trucks where parts in the water systems on the pumps had frozen and then cracked, so now we have repairs to do. There is no way to prevent that aspect of it from happening — especially in the temperatures we were faced with (Monday).”
The weather forecast for the next week includes several more days of temperatures in the teens and single digits with wind chills in the single digits and below zero. The fire crews will have to prepare for those conditions again in the coming days.