Despite what some might think about global warming, winter really wreaked havoc on many of us this year. Departments in areas not used to the freezing temperatures, snow, and ice responded to more emergencies than normal. Other areas survived the bomb cyclone storm, and every time you stretched a hoseline through the drifts or accumulations, it felt like you were moving in slow motion. Let’s look at a few incidents that occurred during this tough winter season.
Every year we hear of people who were killed because of a carbon monoxide (CO) leak. With the heavy accumulation of snow around homes, exhaust flues that are horizontal and go through the foundation wall can become blocked with snow and back a dwelling up with this deadly gas. We ask the public to please help us shovel out any hydrants in front of their homes, but do we ask them to check on their furnace or gas dryer vent?
Each year, we also get some classic CO runs that just have us shaking our heads. We responded to a CO emergency in a third-floor apartment. At first, we just thought it would be a defective battery in the alarm, but as we entered the apartment, our CO meter immediately went into its audible alarm and its lights began flashing. We knew something was up.
We checked the apartment as well as the apartments adjacent and below for a defective gas appliance. All the apartments showed levels of CO that concerned us. Thinking that this large multiple dwelling may have a defective boiler and flue pipe, we directed a member to check that area in the basement. The oil burner room was down a level inside the basement, often referred to as the pit, where an earlier oil line had broken, spewing fuel oil into the room. The maintenance man had cleaned up most of the spill, but he was running a gasoline-driven power washer in the pit to make the area “spotless.” Unfortunately, with very high CO levels throughout the building, we had to force a few apartment doors to ensure no victims were overcome in any of the apartments above. In many of the apartments, we had readings of more than 100 parts per million (ppm), and tenants were sleeping. Venting the apartments and checking on the tenants’ welfare took the companies a while and necessitated the use of mechanical fans to vent the basement and building.
Fire Department of New York personnel are accustomed to running calls for smoking manholes and manholes on fire. Years of salt eating away the protective covering on the wires underground are the cause, so these incidents usually occur during a thaw. To decrease the chances of the heavy manhole covers becoming airborne and causing damage when they land, most of the manhole covers have been replaced with slotted covers that allow gases, smoke, and steam to vent instead of building up inside and blowing the cover off. Normally, units will check all surrounding properties to ensure no fire has extended into the building through the electrical service and to check on CO levels in the basement. Often, the deadly and explosive gases will run through the conduit and into the building, raising the CO levels.
We encountered a basement pushing dark gray smoke and the smell of burning plastic as we approached a two-story commercial building. We masked up and entered the building; the CO meter was already going into full alarm, and the people on the second floor were self-evacuating.
As we entered the basement, the smoke got lighter and it seemed like we just came down the flue. All members continued to wear their masks and search for where the electrical service came into the building. Once we found it, we noticed that fire was burning in the structure in the area behind huge electrical panels, which were mounted on a plywood frame. We called for a dry chemical extinguisher and Purple K just to be safe; we used both in short bursts to keep the fire from extending. As members held the fire in check awaiting the utility company’s arrival, other firefighters removed stock that was close to the fire coming into the building, being mindful not to touch any of the metal of the large panel boxes in case they were energized. They also searched and ventilated the entire building because CO levels were in the 400- to 500-ppm range.
Numerous multiple-alarm fires were transmitted this winter, and units often operated at these scenes for prolonged periods. Operating the tower ladder in these temperatures while flowing water quickly made the overspray turn to ice on the boom, hydraulic pistons, and ladder rungs. To combat this problem, frequently move the boom in all directions to prevent ice buildup and an apparatus malfunction. In addition, water droplets bouncing off the building can adhere quickly to any power lines or tree branches in the area. Consider the additional weight the freezing water adds; power lines and tree branches could sag or suddenly snap and land on firefighters or fire apparatus operating below. Responding tower ladders or aerial ladders can throw some sand or salt (that they’re carrying on the apparatus in a five-gallon bucket) down where the outriggers or jacks will come in contact with the ground. This will help prevent the rig from “sliding” while operating on ice-covered surfaces. Also, carry some old rags to throw over leaky couplings to combat ice near the turntable or pump panel; we don’t need any more skating this season!
MICHAEL N. CIAMPO is a 32-year veteran of the fire service and a lieutenant in the Fire Department of New York. Previously, he served with the District of Columbia Fire Department. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from John Jay College of Criminal Justice in New York City. He is the lead instructor for the FDIC International Truck Essentials H.O.T. program. He wrote the Ladders and Ventilation chapters for Fire Engineering’s Handbook for Firefighter I and II (Fire Engineering, 2009) and the Bread and Butter Portable Ladders DVD and is featured in “Training Minutes” truck company videos on www.FireEngineering.com.