By Raul Angulo
Old Man Winter is still here until March 19, but unpredictable weather events can hit at any time between the seasons; many places around the country can still get snow throughout March and even into April. For many cities in the northern part of the country, a freak snowstorm isn’t unusual or unmanageable. However, for cities in the southern part of the country that rarely get snow, a freak snowstorm can paralyze a city, including its fire department. Snow, hills, and fire trucks don’t mix. Snow drifts and large mounds of accumulated snow can prevent ladder trucks from proper apparatus positioning. Engine companies can easily have more than 1,000 feet of hose loaded on the rigs, but a truck company only has 100 feet of aerial and a limited number of ground ladders.
When you show up at a house fire and snow prevents ladder trucks from perimeter access, consider using a stokes litter as an equipment sled to carry equipment. Lay the stokes litter on the ground and fill it with all the tools and equipment you’ll need for essential fireground support activities like rescue and ventilation. This list could include the irons, a pickhead ax, a roof hook, New York hook or pike poles, a chain saw, a rescue saw, a rabbit tool, a thermal imaging camera, extra self-contained breathing apparatus (SCBA) bottles, a rescue air kit (RAK), an EMS jump kit, and maybe even a PPV fan.
Once loaded, clip a piece of webbing to capture two points at the head of the litter for balance and control. Keep the “V” narrow so the sled can be handled by a single firefighter. If you have limited personnel resources, it’s going to take at least two firefighters to carry a 26-ft. or 35-ft. ground extension ladder and one firefighter to carry a roof ladder. Snow that is knee-deep is extremely difficult to walk through, especially for firefighters in full personal protective equipment wearing SCBA. Make sure members have at least one hand free for balance and to catch themselves if they fall.
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You can overload the sled, making it too heavy for one firefighter to pull quickly. There’s equipment you need to have and there’s equipment you can come back for if you need it. Consider using a D-handle pike pole to hook the sled, using the pike pole as a sled handle; this allows you to bring one more tool without adding to the weight in the sled. The company will have to experiment to see how much equipment one firefighter can efficiently haul. Obviously, if you have more than enough firefighters, a heavy load makes for light work.
Firefighters don’t usually like to drill in the snow and some union contracts prohibit outdoor drilling when temperatures are below 35°F (1.7°C). But fires and other emergencies still happen in the snow. Ladder 6 is located on top of Queen Anne Hill, a district with the steepest and most narrow streets in the city of Seattle. It’s hard enough to get around certain areas when the roads are dry and some areas are impossible to drive during heavy snows with icy road conditions. You have no other choice but to carry all the equipment in by hand–but we had never drilled on it. We simply knew it had to be done. The potential time-delay always worried me and I wanted to practice, but I had to ask my guys to volunteer to drill in the snow to get around the union contract. I appealed to their desire to be experts in any weather conditions but still had to make drill participation optional.
You can use any structure because the emphasis of the drill is getting all the equipment over the snow and to the objective. You don’t need to raise ladders or charge the hoses. You don’t need acquired structures or abandoned buildings. Raising ladders in the snow can be practiced behind the fire station or at the training tower.
So, here’s the drill: pick a place–it can even be a tree in the middle of a small snow field–and tell your crew we need to get all our equipment to this objective so we can go to work. “Ready…go!”
Use common sense. If you pick a tree, make it a reasonable distance that would normally be encountered at a residential or commercial structure within your district. View the accompanying slide show and video. The drill is shot in sequence and is self-explanatory. Remember, the harder the drill, the more they brag. My guys may have started out grumbling, but at shift change, you could hear, “Oh yeah, well the Cap had us out drilling in the snow for two hours yesterday!” Trust me, if the crew is having fun, they’ll determine how long they want to stay out and play in the snow.
RAUL A. ANGULO is Captain Emeritus of Ladder Co. 6 and retired from the Seattle (WA) Fire Department with over 35 years of dedicated service. He is an international author and instructor and serves on the advisory board for Fire Apparatus and Emergency Equipment magazine.