Fire and ice make a poor combination -- just ask the Prince Albert Fire Department.
Every winter, plunging temperatures and a blanket of tundra render the job of local firefighters a greater challenge than usual. Equipment problems are only the tip of the iceberg.
“Basically, the colder temperatures makes it a lot more difficult for us and the firefighters working in those cold conditions,” battalion chief Curtis Mickelson said.
“Some things tend to freeze up, and as with anyone working outside when it’s -30, guys get cold and you have to try and rotate them as best you can just to make sure everybody stays somewhat warm. But that’s not always possible.”
One of the biggest concerns is the potential for frozen fire hydrants. The fire department attempts to avoid the problem by sending out members at the start of every winter to check every hydrant in the city.
“If they do find water in the hydrants, they will pump the water out,” Mickelson said. “But at times, with the water table as high as it is, they could pump it out and two days later it can be full again. So it’s an ongoing battle.”
Similar to the human body, it is possible to avoid equipment freezing by keeping it active through constant use. Firefighters are trained in winter to crack the bale on the nozzle of any hose that remains idle for long. By allowing a small amount of water to flow through, they ensure that the line does not freeze up.
When it comes to the firefighters themselves, the guidelines for hoses are reversed: In order to keep the firefighters from freezing, they must be kept as dry as possible.
Once you get wet and sweated up, then it’s really hard to stay warm. Curtis Mickelson
Given the nature of their work, such a task is easier said than done.
“Once you get wet and sweated up, then it’s really hard to stay warm,” Mickelson said. “The cold really sinks into you … A lot of the times when firefighters enter a building to attack the fire, they’ll come out of that building soaking wet, all their gear and everything. So at times, all their turnout gear can freeze up and they’re just basically a big block of ice.”
The importance of providing a facility or space for firefighters to warm up and put on dry clothes cannot be overstated. However, if the fire continues to burn, firefighters may only get a five or 10-minute break, which is unlikely to help them achieve the desired state of warmth and dryness.
When it comes to winter firefighting, there is one additional threat that looms over the department each year. Poor road conditions make driving more dangerous for all motorists, but piloting a fire truck is a particular challenge.
“You have to be a lot more aware of the people driving around you because of the ice and snow on the roads and stuff,” Mickelson said. “Your stopping distances change and all that. You’ve really got to be aware of your surroundings in the wintertime when you’re driving that apparatus down the street.”