Cold Weather Firefighting – The Challenges for Firefighters in Winter

You might think that summertime is a challenging time for firefighters with increased temperatures, but are you aware of the amount of challenges for firefighters in winter?

Working outdoors in winter can be an unpleasant job at the best of times, but winter challenges for firefighters mean that carrying out duties in the colder weather is not only more difficult, but even more dangerous than usual.

Some of the additional challenges for firefighters in winter include:

  • Fatigue and dehydration
  • Poor footing, slips, and falls
  • Strain and fatigue
  • Problems with frozen water and water flow
  • Accessibility issues due to poor road conditions
  • Additional fire risks to the public

Let’s take a look at some of these in more detail.

Challenges for Firefighters in Winter – Cold Weather

Severe cold means big physical challenges for firefighters and their equipment. The risk of hypothermia is an obvious concern, especially when carrying out operations outdoors.

You might think that the personal protective equipment (PPE) approved for UK firefighting would offer protection from the cold. PPE is designed to protect the user from the heat of a fire, and in theory the insulating layers should be equally effective at keeping the user warm in a cold environment. However the fact is, PPE provides only limited insulation from severe cold.

Firefighters can need protection from both heat and cold at the same incident although usually not at the same time. Typically they’re exposed to low temperatures whilst responding and setting up, then they can encounter extreme heat while conducting an interior fire attack. They then have to deal with exposure to the cold again when they leave the fire environment.

These cycles of hot and cold can throw up a huge challenge to firefighters and their equipment. For example, a firefighter at a serious event heading back into the fire environment after a rest period and an air cylinder replacement has a risk of having breathing apparatus problems, as well as the threat of rapid fatigue.

There is a limited body temperature range in which a firefighter can work safely and efficiently when wearing PPE. If the internal body temperature fluctuates too much, shifting more than a few degrees from normal either up or down, the imbalance can lead to issues like fatigue, heat stress and burns, or at the other extreme hypothermia, frostbite and exhaustion.

Firefighting Equipment in Winter

In winter, it will be necessary for firefighters to have additional equipment to deal with ice and snow. For example, shovels to dig snow, or grit or road salt to help both clear ice and snow from the road, and to spread on the ground at emergency scenes to prevent slips and falls.

It’s also important for firefighters to ensure that hoses containing water don’t freeze, and these will have to be operated in a different manner than usual – allowing a small volume of water flowing (in a safe direction) to prevent the nozzle from freezing.

Working with ground ladders needs to be approached with caution too. The surface of the ground where the ladder is positioned (as well as where the ladder makes contact with the building) may become icy and slippery. It might be necessary to take additional steps to secure ladders to the building.

Ladder rungs can also become slippery without warning. This means firefighters need to take extra care when ascending or descending.

Response time is another winter challenge for firefighters. As a rule, everything moves slower in extreme cold. Vehicles can be held up as a result of poor road conditions and limited accessibility, and firefighters have to move more cautiously themselves on snow and ice.

Public Fire Risks in Winter

In winter, when people are missing the circulation or fresh air throughout their homes, it’s common to turn to artificial fragrances like scented candles. And of course, these are often also used for decorations during the festivities. Therefore it’s no surprise that December is the peak time of year for candle fires to occur.

Falling asleep is a factor in around 10% of home candle fires, and approximately three of every five home candle fires occur when some type of flammable material has been left too close to a candle.

Electrical lights are also a fire hazard over Christmas, and are the culprit in over 40% of Christmas tree fires. The type of tree chosen can also add to the risk and there are pros and cons to both types – real trees tend to be at a higher risk of catching fire because of their needles becoming dry, but artificial trees result in more severe flames with dangerous chemicals and smoke.

One of the other common causes in house fires in winter (that’s often overlooked) is tumble dryers – which are generally used a lot more in the colder months. Most dryer fires occur in the autumn and winter months, with the majority starting because homeowners fail to clean the dryer. A build-up of lint and other materials can cause dryer fires because the unit cannot release heat appropriately.

Road Traffic Challenges for Firefighters in Winter

Winter road traffic accidents make up a huge amount of winter callouts for firefighters. There are lots of ways that a vehicle could be impacted by cold weather. Temperatures can affect fuel, brake fluid and also the tyre grip.

There’s also the very common threat of vehicles slipping off-road or into the path of other vehicles due to poor road conditions, snow or black ice. These can range from minor collisions to major events with fatalities.

The snow can also affect driver vision. This isn’t just due to elements like rain, snow and fog – other things can cause poor visibility too. The sun can be particularly harsh in winter, and the glare from snow and ice can also affect driver vision.

We’ve spoken a lot about the challenges of firefighting in this article, and it’s true that this is an incredibly demanding career. However, despite this, it’s also an incredibly rewarding one. If you’re considering a career (or a career change) as a firefighter then have a browse through our ‘becoming a firefighter’ content, and take a look at our best-selling eBooks in our store.

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FRS Team

Our team of experts have the many years of Fire Service experience and are up to date with the latest selection news.

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