Winter Driving Tips for Firefighters and Paramedics/EMTs

By Robert Raheb

Once again, the leaves and temperature have fallen in most regions of the country and soon we will have to deal with the icy roads and motorists who refuse to change their driving habits to meet those conditions. Let us also remind ourselves that we, as first responders, must also adapt to changing road conditions and ensure that our vehicles are ready when the alarm sounds.

Many first responders mentally change their driving behaviors to reflect weather conditions until a call comes over the radio, momentarily forgetting the ever-present conditions while they try to race to the call. Members responding from home have the same problem--they know they can make it to their station in a certain amount of time on a dry day, but in their minds they have to do the same on a wet or foggy day, even though they know they cannot.

The following tips regarding prepping the vehicle and driving in inclement weather are presented to make the best of winter driving conditions.

The Vehicle

  • Tires: Department vehicles are usually well-maintained and tire tread depth should be sufficient, but on privately owned vehicles (POVs), it is the responsibility of the owner to ensure the tires are properly inflated and have enough tread depth.
  • Fluids: Ensure antifreeze levels are at the proper level and that the antifreeze is sufficient to protect the system from freezing. Windshield wiper fluid should be rated not to freeze, and you should ensure enough fluid is in there.
  • Wipers: Wiper blades are usually the last thing that gets changed. Make sure they are soft, pliable, and in good condition. Wipers should make good contact with the windshield to wipe them clean.
  • Windshields: Ice, snow, and salt dust accumulate on the windows quickly. Stop and clean them periodically. If you are based in a station, take the time to clean the windows after every call. Wash your vehicle at least once per tour and take extra care to ensure the door locks don't freeze.
  • Lights: Some EMS systems patrol the streets while others sit in a station. Either way, it is important to ensure that headlights and emergency lights are cleared of all snow and ice.
  • Siren: Periodically check to ensure that the siren cones on the front of the vehicle are clear. Snow often packs into the cones on long transports or when stationary for long periods outdoors. Snow packed in the cones reduces the volume of the siren.

The Road and the Environment

The funny thing about ice is that you do not always see it, nor is it everywhere; but when the vehicle hits ice, it will seem like it has a mind of its own. The following tips should be considered when driving where ice may be present:

ALWAYS leave lots of room between you and the car in front, on average about 10 seconds following distance. That may seem like a lot of space, but when you apply the brakes on ice, that space will close up real fast.

Bridges and overpasses will always freeze before the main road surface.

Reduce your speed. Most vehicles can get some sort of traction on ice to get going, but all vehicles have a real hard time trying to stop. Don't get complacent with the fact that you're moving.

When operating at an incident scene, increase distance when placing a blocking vehicle and, if at all possible, either shut the roadway down or request additional vehicles to add to those blocking the scene.

Everyone wishes they did things different when attending a funeral. Don't wish ...just do it.

Unlike ice, black ice is almost invisible or may give the appearance of a wet road surface. Black ice actually got its name from the fact that the ice is clear and the black road surface shines through it. Black ice is usually found around less-traveled roadways and intersections. An example would be traffic that waits at a stop light: the heat radiating from engines and tires on the road surface melts a thin layer of snow or ice. After the traffic pulls away, with no other traffic passing in a short time span, the water refreezes and becomes a thin layer of clear ice. Knowing this, the best way to handle these conditions is to stop well before intersections and slowly move up to the stop line while maintaining awareness of the car behind you.

Unless your vehicle is specially designed to travel through deep snow or unplowed streets, do not attempt driving in such conditions. Last winter, New York City failed to plow the majority of their streets in the outer boroughs; more than half of the ambulances became stuck and required towing. Most drivers were able to get part way down city blocks, but once they stopped it was impossible to get out. Don't keep driving to see how far your rig can go; others are likely doing the same. When emergency vehicles get stuck, call volumes keep growing, and assistance for crews may take hours.

During the rainy season and with runoff from melting snow, streets may flood. Driving through deep water should be avoided. Water that comes up to the hub (middle) of the wheel is considered too deep and can cause the vehicle to stall or result in major damage to the engine. In some areas, deep water also can mean swift water with currents stronger and faster than they appear from the side. Do not attempt to cross running water unless your vehicle is equipped and the crew trained to handle such a crossing.

Limited sight distance can be a common winter event. With the winter months come fog, rain, sleet and snow. All of these can create blinding conditions that impair the sight distance. When traveling in these conditions, always remember to slow down and increase following distances. Use of bright lights and emergency lighting can actually hinder the EVOs (Emergency Vehicle Operator's) view. When operating at the scene, position the vehicle 1.5 truck lengths further back to give approaching motorist ample warning and use flares. Most states now require emergency vehicles to have blue lights affixed to the rear. Blue lights are readily visible in low-light conditions.

Increase your stopping distance. When it comes to driving, everything about snow takes longer and that includes stopping. There's a big difference in the amount of inertia it takes to get moving from a full stop versus how much it takes to get moving while still rolling. By increasing the following distance and thereby increasing the stopping distance, the driver can slow enough to keep rolling until traffic starts to move again. When it comes to braking, whether with ABS or not, the best way to stop is threshold braking: apply firm, steady pressure on the brake pedal.

Sound: During the winter months when the humidity is higher, the air is denser and high-frequency sounds don't travel as far; low frequency sounds travel farther. All sounds are muffled in this type of environment, and although all lights and sirens are engaged, it is still easy to sneak up on someone in front. Air horns are more effective when used in short bursts and in combination with the siren.

The Driver

Unfortunately, most drivers are disconnected from their driving environments. Our vehicles have many compensating factors built into them to help correct a driver's mistakes. The problem is trying to change behavioral issues with engineering solutions. Instead of slowing down in poor weather conditions, drivers continue to drive fast and follow too closely because they feel that their vehicles are capable of handling it. While this is perhaps true, other drivers or vehicles may not be as capable. Safety has two components: perceived and actual. The guy driving in the little "econo-box" type car with no anti-lock brakes or traction control recognizes how dangerous the roads are every time he steps on the gas or brake and drives appropriately. The other guy driving a 4x4 SUV loaded with safety devices may perceive a level of safety that in fact is not there.

The Intersection

Intersections are always the most dangerous area when responding. During snowy conditions, lanes and cross walks and other painted markings may be covered because of snowfall. Street signs and traffic lights may be obscured or indistinguishable from other objects in the environment. Always approach the intersection with the intent that your vehicle is NOT going to stop and that other vehicles may not be able to stop either.

The Scene

When parking on the street before going into a building, the first order of business is safety. Is the ambulance sufficiently out of the way of traffic or does the street need to be blocked off? Is there enough room for traffic to pass safely? Will you and your partner have to climb over a snow bank to get to the building? If the ambulance is parked with additional units, the other units should be parked behind the ambulance to protect the rear doors and the crew when loading a patient.

While working on an expressway or other potentially dangerous roadway, set up a safety perimeter around the scene (as always), but in bad weather conditions with slippery roadways, increase the distance to give motorists ample time to recognize, process, and react to the change in conditions.

Be Proactive

Now that winter has arrived, start getting training bulletins out early and often. Bring drivers back for enhanced training on a skid pad and in a driver training simulator if you have one. Remember, simulation training allows training to take place on snow covered and icy roads before a single snowflake falls in your community, so take advantage of it. Simulation can create any scenario and allows the EVO to not only respond, but to work with the officer in determining where to position the rig in snowy, wintry conditions. Don't just practice driving techniques; take time to ensure that your officers and drivers have a good understanding of vehicle placement at the scene.

Remember: drive like your life depends on it.

Robert Raheb is a retired FDNY lieutenant and EVOC instructor. His instruction using driver training simulators led to a 38-percent reduction in intersections collisions in the FDNY-EMS. Currently he serves as the Emergency Response Specialist for FAAC, Incorporated, which makes professional driver training simulators.

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