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Fighting fires in cold a special task

Published: Tuesday, Feb. 5, 2013 9:42 a.m. CST

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(MCT) — While winter fires can present special challenges, local fire department officials say the men and women who fight these blazes are well equipped to handle cold—even frigid—temperatures.

"We pre-plan for fires all the time," said Libertyville Fire Chief Rich Carani. "It can be 100 degrees or it can be a 5-below-zero day, and the fire tactics are still the same. You just have more environmental concerns you have to deal with."

In the wake of a fire that Chicago fire officials called the city's largest in seven years—a blaze that turned a Bridgeport warehouse into a smoldering ice castle—as well as a fire just north of the Illinois-Wisconsin border that required 300 firefighters from both states to contain it, suburban departments say they have special precautions in place for battling winter fires, even giant ones.

Joe Schelstreet, acting fire chief for the St. Charles Fire Department, said in inclement conditions, the department will call the local school district for a "warming bus" in which officers can shake off the cold.

"If you're putting people out in inclement weather, they have to be protected for that," Schelstreet said. "If they have to operate for long periods of time, they have to have recuperation periods when they stay warm and dry. Hypothermia is a real concern."

Dave Wheelock, fire chief for Lake Zurich, agreed that freezing temperatures pose an extra danger. He said Lake Zurich has mutual aid agreements with neighboring communities that allows the town to call extra people in when needed.

"What's most important is rotating people out," Wheelock said. "When you're dealing with water and it's zero degrees out, that needs to happen. ... We'll usually call for help early on because we know we'll be rotating those crews frequently."

Wheelock said his crews wear at least two or three layers when they go out to fires in cold weather, and he also encourages them to wear long underwear or a similar layer of protection on especially frigid days.

Beyond those responding to the fire, firefighters are very concerned about the impact the temperatures have on the people at the scene of a rescue operation, Park Ridge Deputy Fire Chief Jeff Sorensen said. Injured citizens need to be taken out of the cold immediately, which can be especially challenging when responding to vehicular accidents where extracting a victim can take time.

"They're basically being attacked by the elements," Sorensen said.

Schelstreet said another danger of fighting fires when it's cold is the danger of slipping on the ice that forms from hose water. For that reason, he said, all of his department's apparatuses have small containers of salt. The department also calls the town's public works department to have the area around the fire salted.

"Anything that gets wet will freeze," Schelstreet said. "Even if we're idling, we're circulating water [in the vehicles]. When we come back from a call, we take extra precautions to make sure things don't freeze open or freeze closed."

Nonetheless, Carani said for the most part, the tactics will be the same whether it's the middle of January or the middle of August.

"I wouldn't say we do anything differently other than you have to use extra caution because of the ice," Carani said. "The ice builds up on the building, making a weight issue."

The Bridgeport and Burlington fires' aftermaths go far to make Carani's point. The ice-covered facades present a danger of building collapse, Schelstreet said.

"You have a fire-weakened structure to begin with," Schelstreet said of the Bridgeport warehouse, "and then you're going to put extra weight that the building was never designed to hold in the first place."

Despite the challenges, Schelstreet said they're just part of the job.

"We train on fires in all sorts of weather," Schelstreet said. "You're a firefighter when it's 70 and sunny, and you're a firefighter when it's 30 below."

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