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Looking for Allies when Fighting Extreme Weather? Look to Public Works

Extreme weather can take its toll on the fire and emergency service. But when it comes to keeping communities safe, the fire department doesn’t need to be out there on their own. Chief Bill Askenstedt, secretary/treasurer of the Eastern Division, has seen extreme weather through the perspective of both the fire department and the public-works department, and he shares his experiences on the importance of collaboration between the two.

OS: Based on your experience, why would you recommend that fire departments build a relationship with their community’s public-works departments, particularly when preparing for extreme weather? How are these two connected?

Askenstedt: I retired from 30 years in the fire service, 20 as fire chief. I now run the Department of Public Works (DPW) for the town, so I have experience on both sides of the weather problem. As a result, we have a very critical mutual-aid system between the DPW and the fire department, which works very well. We send plows to fire and EMS calls in the winter, and we’ve used loaders to access people where vehicles can’t pass. We used this in the recent response to Hurricane Irene and it worked very well.

Most fire departments don't think about using DPWs for mutual aid, but we’ve been doing it successfully for years. During the hurricane, DPW was involved in rescues because of the high-clearance equipment we had available; many of the rescues were done by both groups working together. Both worked side-by-side clearing downed trees and pumping floodwater.

OS:  Being from the Northeastern U.S., you certainly have your share of experience with the dangers posed during the winter months. Last year was a tough year. Did you have any weather-based surprises last year?

Askenstedt: The most consistent thing about winter weather is that it’s always different than what you expect, but no one should ever be surprised by winter weather on the east coast. The exact scope of incident may not be predicted, but the type of incidents should be expected and planned for.

If we know anything, we know weather forecasting is only accurate if done after the incident. But the fact is that snow, ice, flooding, CO calls, etc., happen every year, so while the exact event may be a surprise, the overall issue and the appropriate response measures should not be.

No matter where they live, fire chiefs should be prepared for weather events that can occur during the winter: make sure your crews have the right training, ensure specific gear is operational and in place and make sure you have any agreements and logistics with other agencies, like DPW, worked out.

OS: What were some of your most important lessons learned from last winter? What do you see as the biggest risk, threat or challenge for your department this year?

Askenstedt: The biggest lesson that fire departments everywhere should learn is that local- and state-government budget cuts will create additional stressors during extreme weather. It definitely had an impact on operations last year and will continue to do so. Fire departments need to consider not just their own budgets, but the budgets of those agencies who work with them. DPWs have experienced deep cuts across the country, which can complicate emergency response—all the more reason for the two departments to establish good relations and work closely during emergencies.

In the northeast, for example, we’re seeing longer times to clear snow and less salting of secondary roads. Fire departments need to prepare for streets being blocked longer than normal and roads being slippery with ice.

All departments should be in constant touch with their DPWs to know what’s open and what isn’t and to have DPW equipment ready to help in an emergency. For volunteers, response times may be much longer, so standby crews are the best option.

OS: What action are you taking to prepare your responders and community for 2011-2012?

Askenstedt: For responders, we’re focusing on awareness of the issues that can arise and the process for handling them, and we’re putting in place contingency plans. For example, we have standby crews and mutual-assistance arrangements with plowing and salting crews if an emergency arises. We have a plow respond to all fire and EMS emergencies when mutual assistance is activated.

Education is the central element of our community efforts; here are some priorities:

  • letting community members know response may be delayed during weather emergencies
  • making sure they know to have emergency supplies
  • encouraging nonessential traffic to stay home and off the roads
  • encouraging people who may have special needs—like being in the later stages of pregnancy or medical measures requiring electricity—to have an emergency plan

Bill Askenstedt is the secretary/treasurer of the IAFC’s Eastern Division.

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