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Firefighters’ winter work becomes a frozen job

Published: Monday, Feb. 10, 2014 5:30 a.m. CDT • Updated: Monday, Feb. 10, 2014 11:36 a.m. CDT
Caption
(Sarah Nader – snader@shawmedia.com)
Firefighters roll up their fire hoses in the cold weather Feb. 3 after responding to a fire at a vacant home in Crystal Lake.

Woodstock firefighter and paramedic Scott Baumgartner accepts that freezing water, lingering smoke, frostbite and ice all become a part of his job when fires erupt during the winter.

Firefighters go into situations that usually drive away other people, since the threat of flames and burning structures alone make for danger. The winter – with its wind chills, cold air and snow – merely make those situations more challenging, said Baumgartner, who recently helped fight a nighttime barn fire in Harvard at a frosty minus 3 degrees.

Throughout it all, a firefighter’s job is to extinguish the blaze. He can’t dwell on the cold or the fact that the mist coming off a high-pressure hose can freeze his equipment and clothes, Baumgartner said.

“I’m thinking about the job I have to do and getting it done,” he said. “It’s during the down time, when you realize, ‘Man, I’m getting cold.’ ”

The preparation before the fire truck leaves the station for the scene is key to fighting a fire in the cold.

Baumgartner and his colleagues at Woodstock Fire Rescue typically bring an extra pair of dry clothes, socks, gloves and hats to switch out of clothes wet from sweat and equipment. They also have to be mindful of frostbite since fingers, the ears and face usually aren’t protected.

“Cold smoke” can cause worse visibility for firefighters because smoke lingers near the ground in colder air, Baumgartner said.

“Prevention is key. The last thing you want to think is that it’s too cold to work,” said Baumgartner, adding that firefighters depend on each other to do their part on scene.

A harsh winter, like the one that has hit the area this year, can also create problems for the tools firefighters use to do their jobs, said Paul DeRaedt, the deputy chief for Crystal Lake Fire Rescue.

Departments in Crystal Lake, Woodstock and other area communities typically install heat shields on their trucks that captures the heat from the exhaust and prevents water pumps from freezing.

While on scene, firefighters will leave nozzles on hoses cracked open to ensure water keeps flowing and doesn’t ice over.

“There’s nothing worse than getting out to a fire and not being able to fight it,” DeRaedt said.

Departments call for extra assistance in the winter simply for the added manpower that helps firefighters stay warm and stave off frostbite, he said.

Icy conditions from the hundreds of gallons of water used to fight blazes can cause footing problems for firefighters, their ladders and other equipment.

“The additional challenges are having to trudge through snow and watching out for slippery conditions,” DeRaedt said. “It can slow things down, that’s for sure.”

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