Winter will soon be upon us, bringing with it lower temperatures, earlier nightfall, ice and snow. Some will pack their bags and head south for warmer weather, but most will stay and endure what the coming winter will bring. For firefighters and EMS responders, it will become an even more treacherous and dangerous work environment, dealing with the cold, snow, and ice conditions that will further hamper operations.
Working in the winter environment requires extra caution, appropriate clothing, and one of the important responsibilities will be responding with apparatus when the road conditions will be less than favorable. These conditions will require extreme caution when responding and knowledge and familiarization with winter driving skills. It may also be helpful to have on board the apparatus a shovel, long handle preferred, and a salt/sand mixture should the apparatus becomes stuck en route or at the scene.
The initial part of the response will remain the same, know where you are going, choose a route, and buckle up before leaving quarters. Have all headlights and emergency lights operating when responding, this will help increase your visibility to other vehicles in storm conditions. Stick to the main roads for as long as possible, normally they will be in better condition than the side roads, and reduce your response speed by 50 percent or more according to road conditions.
Easy does it will be the key to a safe and successful response. Do not attempt to pass snow plows and sanding trucks as the vehicle operators may have limited visibility. When and if you do pass them, expect road conditions to be worse. Maintaining traction is an important element when driving in snow; try to maintain a constant speed, not so slow that you lose traction, or too fast that you lose control. Use a light touch on the accelerator and steering wheel to avoid loss of traction, once traction is lost you may begin skidding and lose steering control.
Be observant of road conditions and maintain a safe distance from other vehicles. Stay alert for hazards that you may encounter along your response route, and allow yourself plenty of room to maneuver and/or stop the apparatus. If the road is blocked by vehicles stuck in the snow, alter your response route and pass the information along to other responding apparatus via radio.
Slow down and avoid sudden turns of the steering wheel, and sudden braking and accelerating that could cause a skid. In a skid, it’s important to regain control of your vehicle, especially if it skids sideways. To do this, decelerate by taking your foot off the accelerator, step on the clutch or shift to neutral, then look where you want your vehicle to go and steer in that direction.
Driving under snow and ice conditions require longer time and distance to stop. Prior to braking, reduce acceleration and let the weight of the apparatus and reduced engine speed assist in slowing the apparatus down. When braking, avoid locking up the brakes as this will put the apparatus into a skid, resulting in loss of steering control.
Some other winter weather conditions that emergency apparatus drivers should be aware of are black ice and early freezing of bridges, ramps and overpasses. Black ice may appear black and shiny or just like an ordinary roadway, especially at night. If you encounter black ice your vehicle can lose traction suddenly, remove your foot from the accelerator, and let the apparatus slow down while you attempt to control the steering as you cross the ice patch. Do not step on the brake! If your response area includes parkways, highways, and interstates, use caution on ramps when the roads are slick or appear that they may become that way.
Use caution also on bridges and overpasses when the temperature is hovering around freezing, no matter what time of year it is, as they will freeze first, remain frozen longer and may be slippery.
The use of tire chains on fire apparatus after a certain amount of snow has accumulated remains an option for many fire departments, especially in urban areas. Snow chains enable the vehicle to maintain better road traction; they do not reduce stopping distances.
The greatest benefit of using tire chains when weather conditions warrant there use is knowing that you have done all you can to complete your emergency response.
Incorporate into your departments’ driver training program a winter driving skills and techniques section, taught by qualified personnel to newer and less experienced personnel. The use of large empty parking areas, public or private, after a snowstorm and before they have been cleared of snow will prove to be a valuable asset to your training program.
Don’t forget to seek permission for use of the property before starting the training. If your department does use tire chains, include in your training how to install them on the apparatus, preferably during the summer months.
Till Next Time, Stay Safe and God Bless!
Merry Christmas and a Happy New Year!