Preparing for the Weather: Winter

By Tom Warren

The winter months bring frozen hose, shoveling snow from hydrants, icy steps and, most annoyingly, the cold and flu. During the course of our everyday activities, we cannot avoid coming into contact with the viruses that cause cold and flu illness. The idea that the cold weather causes the common cold or the flu is simply a myth. The only way to catch the common cold or flu is by being exposed to the viruses that cause these illnesses. The common cold is the most contagious during the first two days of the illness. Contact with flu infected people or surfaces where the flu viruses exist are the only ways to get the flu.

Although the common cold and the flu are both respiratory illnesses, they are caused by different viruses. Because they have similar symptoms, it can be difficult to tell them apart. But generally, cold symptoms are much milder than the flu, and recovery is much quicker. The common cold is less severe than the flu and usually lasts seven to 10 days depending on its severity. The common cold is seldom accompanied by a fever, extreme exhaustion, or severe pain. The most common symptoms are a stuffy nose, runny nose, sneezing, sore throat, mild cough, mild fatigue, and mild chest discomfort. Treatment consists of antihistamines; decongestants; and nonsteroidal, antiinflammatory medicines. The best ways to prevent catching a cold are washing your hands often, avoiding people who have a cold, and the frequent use of hand sanitizers. Complications are rare but may include sinus congestion or middle ear infections.


The Challenges of Fire Operations in Extreme Cold

The flu is caused by the influenza virus, which spreads from infected people to the nose or throat of others. The flu vaccine is developed for the flu strain that is expected to be prevalent each year and varies slightly from year to year. Most years, there is an ample supply of flu vaccine available for the flu season. For the best protection, contact your health care provider to schedule a flu shot or participate in your department sponsored flu shot clinic.

The months of November and December are the best time to get a flu shot. The flu is usually accompanied by a fever that will range from 100°F to 102°F and can last up to three to four days. Headaches are common symptoms along with general aches and pains. A sense of general weakness and fatigue can last up to two to three weeks, with the strongest exhaustion occurring in the initial phase. Chest discomfort and a cough are common and may become severe. Stuffy nose, sneezing, and a sore throat are not usually symptoms of the flu but may occur in a mild form. Treatments consist of antiviral medicines and rest. The two best ways to prevent the flu is by avoiding people who are ill (if possible) and receiving an annual flu shot. Complications to watch for are the flu progressing into bronchitis or pneumonia.

The best way to prevent catching a cold or getting the flu is to take the following simple steps every day:

  • Avoid close contact with sick people. Also, when you are sick, keep your distance from others to protect them from getting sick.
  • Stay at home when you are sick. If possible, stay home from work and school and avoid running errands when you are sick. You’ll help prevent others from catching your illness.
  • Cover your mouth and nose. Cover your mouth and nose with a tissue when coughing or sneezing. Sneeze into your elbow, not your hand. It may prevent those around you from getting sick.
  • Clean your hands. Washing your hands will help protect you from catching germs. Use hot, soapy water and antibacterial soap if available. Use an alcohol-based gel if you don’t have access to water (hand sanitizer).
  • Avoid touching your eyes, nose, or mouth. Germs are often spread when people touch something that is contaminated with germs and then touches their eyes, nose, or mouth.
  • Drink plenty of fluids. Drink fluids even when you feel well. The fluids can help prevent an infection from setting in. If you do catch a cold, avoid caffeinated beverages.
  • Wash shared surfaces. Wash surfaces that are shared with others such as keyboards, telephones, exercise equipment, and TV remotes.
  • Exercise regularly. Regular exercise boosts the immune system and may prevent catching a cold or flu. People who exercise regularly may still get sick, but the symptoms are less severe and they recover more quickly.
  • Participate in a flu shot clinic. Flu shot clinics are offered widely in every community and in most drug stores. The best time to get the shot is before the flu season arrives, which is sometime in November or December.
  • Air out the firehouse. Make an effort to open the doors and windows for 10 to 15 minutes at the shift change to change the air in the firehouse. It may also be beneficial to practice this same procedure in your home.

Frostbite is another common winter hazard that you must guard against. Firefighters who get wet during firefighting operations must be mindful of this hazard. The onset of frostbite can occur almost unnoticed, but the effect can last a lifetime. If the temperature becomes 0°F to -19°F, exposed skin can freeze in just five to 10 minutes. Following is a wind-chill chart from the National Weather Service that illustrates the dangers of cold weather exposure.


During snowstorms and in their following days, fire companies are at a greater risk for apparatus accidents with the potential for injury to firefighters. All vehicle operators and company officers should be vigilant to road conditions caused by the weather and snow removal operations. Fire apparatus is just as likely to be involved in an accident by snow and ice as any vehicle. The weight of fire apparatus will increase the severity of accidents and increase the damage to apparatus, thereby creating a higher potential for injuries.

The roadways become narrower following snow removal operations, causing vehicles to be parked further into the roadways. As a result, pedestrians will walk in the roadways and intersections will become congested; this combination increases the potential for apparatus accidents and potential firefighter injuries. Soft snow banks quickly turn into walls of ice as temperatures rise and fall, interfering with normal fire department operations. Whether it means maneuvering apparatus at emergency scenes or simply walking, firefighters are at risk. When operating in snow and icy conditions, all operators should decrease speed and leave plenty of room to stop and maneuver their apparatus. Apparatus operators should plan ahead while driving and brake apparatus gently as well as avoid sudden movement of the apparatus to avoid skidding. As always, be especially careful on bridges, overpasses, and infrequently traveled roads, which can freeze first. Even as temperatures rise above freezing, seemingly wet road surfaces may allow ice to form in shaded areas (black ice).

Company officers should consider carrying extra shovels and a pail or two of sand on their apparatus during the winter months for use at the scene of fires to ensure good footing for firefighters and as an aid if the apparatus looses traction on snow or ice. Engine company officers should always consider the effects of water when it makes contact with frozen surfaces around the apparatus or on the apparatus steps, tailboard, and ladders.

In short, drive slowly, plan ahead, drive defensively, and be mindful of the dangers to firefighters when conditions become icy.

When firefighters report for duty, they should always be thinking of the weather conditions that they will be subjected to for that shift and prepare accordingly. In the winter months, it may mean placing extra clothing on the apparatus and keeping the firehouse free of viruses.


THOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He has a bachelor’s degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.



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