All one has to do is look at very recent weather events to see the impact and challenges the fire service must face on a cyclical basis. Blizzards dropping large amounts of snow and ice, tropical events with harsh winds and rains and devastating tornadoes are but some of Mother Nature’s fury that can confront the fire service and their personnel.
Does your department have an institutionalized plan in place describing how to deal with these potential impacts? If not, the time to develop one is before their potential impacts and not as the events unfold.
Although every jurisdiction has its unique demographics, severe weather and its potential effects are somewhat predictable. Using historical data from your area or lessons learned from past events in similar communities can give you a great foundation from which to build your own standard operating guidelines.
It's not as intimidating a task as you may think: most of the operational predictions are common sense and can be calculated from some everyday observations and historical research of past events. The Community Risk Assessment program being developed by Vision 20/20 is an excellent source to begin the process, and one of the major components is the impact on your ability to provide services.
Inclement weather, such as large amounts of snow, ice, rain and wind, challenge us directly by making apparatus safe travel to an incident difficult; apparatus response safety is challenging under even favorable conditions. Your department should have clearly developed and communicated policies that emergency response will become more conservative and methodical as conditions decline.
Local conditions may dictate a cessation of response if firefighter safety becomes unreasonably in peril due to hazardous conditions, such as at the height of a hurricane or within the path of a tornado. It’s important that both fire service members and the community at large understand this and the rationale behind it.
Not all weather extremes are singular events; prolonged heat waves and extreme cold snaps are normal occurrences in many areas. The U.S. Fire Administration, in conjunction with the International Association of Fire Fighters, published the guide Emergency Incident Rehabilitation (Feb 2008, PDF). It states, “Defining the firefighters’ environment is an important first step in developing effective work practices and strategies for protecting them from stress-related illnesses and injuries;” it’s an excellent source of information with regard to heat and cold-related extremes for first responders.
Harsh environmental conditions have a potentially dramatic physiological effect on a firefighter’s body. It’s essential that fire department policies address extreme weather with regards to firefighter medical surveillance and rehabilitation. Every firefighter should be educated on the effects that harsh environmental conditions and threats pose to the health, safety and welfare of those operating vigorously under such conditions. These physiological challenges and responses are predictable, so policies, procedures and practices must be in place to address these types of challenges.
Some departments also have separate response criteria for extreme weather conditions. In high-heat environments, there’s sometimes an increase in the number of responding units to certain calls, such as brush or wildland fires. The need to rotate crews in and out will often become severely compressed and more resources need to be immediately available to launch a sustained attack.
This will also be true for cold-weather incidents, such as working structure fires. In that case, the incident commander will have to take into account the travel and weather conditions and the call for additional alarm assignments earlier.
For routine “smells and bells” responses, it’s not uncommon that some departments cut back the number of apparatus on the road during extreme weather.
Whether the weather challenge is a one-time experience for your department or an extended recurring event, the effects on your department’s ability to respond efficiently and effectively will depend on your level of preparedness. Being proactive and planning ahead for the potential impacts of extreme weather are essential functions of operational response. Our personnel must be protected from the adverse affects of climatic conditions not only by the equipment they wear, but also by the policies and procedures we promulgate.
Don’t let your department be caught cold, or it will be lost in the heat of the moment. Create an environment of preparedness for extreme weather!
Todd J. LeDuc, MS, CFO, CEM, MIFireE, is assistant chief of Broward Sheriff Fire Rescue, a career 750-member department in Broward County, Fla., and a board member for the SHS Section. John Sullivan, MPA, CFO, EFO, MIFireE, is deputy chief of Operations for the Worcester, Mass., fire department and secretary for the SHS Section.