Don't Be Left Out in the Cold... or the Wind, or the Rain or the Snow

A recent report from the National Climatic Data Center, “Billion Dollar U.S. Weather/Climate Disasters,” clearly shows what a year we have had so far. For many states, the impact has created increased challenges and response activity.

Another recent report from the USFA, “Winter Residential Building Fires,” shows that the highest percentage of residential building fires occur during the winter months.

Winter is just around the corner, so it’s a good time to look back at last winter, along with any recent incidents and the lessons learned from them. The winter of 2010-2011 turned out to be a challenging one for the Northeast, as well as many central and eastern states.

The Groundhog Day Blizzard that occurred during Jan. 29-Feb. 3, 2011, was an especially large winter storm that severely impacted the country. Many areas not normally used to extreme winter conditions, such as New Mexico and Texas, experienced significant snowfall or ice accumulation. In Connecticut, snowfall and ice caused an extreme number of stressed and collapsed roofs and structures, one of them an indoor motorcycle track—the largest freestanding building in Connecticut.

After winter came the 2011 hurricane season, which was described to be a season with “well above average” activity. The Northeast found this to be true when Hurricane Irene arrived as a tropical storm in late August. Connecticut suffered massive power outages and shoreline damage. Eastern upstate New York and Vermont suffered from some of the worst flooding in their states histories.

Just a month before, in early June, county strike teams and assets from Connecticut assisted Massachusetts with damage from devastating tornados that hit the city of Springfield and the surrounding areas along the states’ border. As in many states, again the fire service in Connecticut found itself challenged at different levels.

At the state level, in the winter we found the fire liaison desk at our state’s Emergency Operations Center activated and staffed a record number of times. This was a true test of not only our statewide fire disaster response plan and policies, but also of our personnel.

An extreme number of building-roof issues from heavy snow and ice loads created a unique situation. Requests for guidance from the states fire service on how to handle these began to come in. Fortunately, using an IAFC template, we had previously developed our Model Procedure Guide on Response to Hurricane and Tropical Storms for the 2010 season. This policy was not only used by the fire service, but other agencies, such as EMS and law enforcement, saw its value. Following that same format, we were able to create the Model Procedure Guide to Collapse or Potential Collapse of Buildings.

Though we didn’t realize it then, we would be using IAFC resources again months later.

With the damage from Irene, the fire desk and other the emergency support functions again were staffed for a record length of time with an intense amount of activity. We were fortunate to have a very experienced emergency management director and state fire administrator. This combined with the lessons learned from the winter showed that back-up personnel would be taxed with their regional, county or own fire department’s challenges from the storm.

Anticipating the need for qualified experienced personnel, we called the IAFC Go Team request line and activated a team. The experience brought by the three Go Team members to this lengthy event not only supported fire functions, but other EOC roles as well. Additional support took place through regular communication and status updates with our assigned IAFC technical expert.

At the regional and county level, fire coordinators again found they had become taxed with their own fire departments’ increased activity. Most state and regional fire assets are housed and operated by local fire departments, and once overwhelmed with incidents, getting these assets delivered as requested became a challenge.

At the local level, fire departments had many challenges. Winter and tropical storms brought downed trees, creating access issues. Dealing not only with the effects of power outages, some departments had delayed responses or couldn’t get to incidents, relying on neighboring departments to respond. Stations suffered roof damage or collapse.  

Lessons Learned 

At the state level – Identify you strengths and weaknesses as soon as possible after dealing with large incidents. Expand and have an adequate number of personnel who will be available to staff your ESF desks and roles. Don’t hesitate to activate IAFC Go Team members to support your large incidents. This isn’t only at the state level; use the outside support available to you. Remember, your greatest asset is personnel.

At the regional and county level – Expand your fire-coordinator work-force systems to handle long-term, large incidents. Create defined coverage plans during incidents and keep contact information current. Have backup plans for response if your department plays a role in state teams or assets.

At the local level – Develop or expand existing mutual-aid agreements to handle access issues from forced road closures and washouts. Identify your department’s strengths and weaknesses as soon as possible after dealing with large incidents. Fortunately, there’s an abundance of current information for fire departments to list on their websites or distribute that can benefit the public this upcoming winter.

The U.S. Fire Administration and National Fire Protection Association worked together to create multiple winter safety-related downloadable brochures, materials for newspapers and podcasts:

William Higgins is the administrator for Connecticut’s Statewide Fire Service Disaster Plan and an instructor at the Connecticut Fire Academy.

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