Frozen hydrants, icicles hanging from helmets, and ice particles from mists of water linger in the air while a fire rages.
It’s one of the scenarios Humber’s firefighting students face in their training.
Mark Alderman, Humber’s Operation Coordinator of the Fire and Emergency Services Program, said students receive extensive training in dealing with frigid temperatures.
“We do a lot of skill-based training,” he said. “Whether it’s simulated calls, practicing the skills or responding to future emergencies we ensure they have the skill sets in place.”
Alderman said training provided allows students to identify the hazards associated with extreme cold weather, not just to equipment, but also to their bodies.
“Our students actually do scenario-based and live-fire training at the GTAA airport. They practice how to ensure water keeps flowing and doesn’t freeze and various safety measures,” he said, adding they train how to work around frozen hydrants, roadways and other challenges that result from below freezing temperatures.
The extreme cold that has gripped southern Ontario much of this winter poses major challenges to firefighting, said Division Commander Chief Len Stadler of Toronto Fire.
“The scene is more treacherous. Often times you’re dealing with ice and that brings a higher risk for injuries and when we’re utilizing the water we compound that problem,” he said.
Stadler said another major issue with the disbursement of water is the mist it creates, freezing wherever it lands.
“If we’re defensive, meaning we’re fighting the fire from the outside, we apply water to the structure,” he said. ‘Depending on how the wind is blowing it could land on our equipment such as ladders or the trucks and cause major logistical issues.” he said.
Also, the self-contained breathing apparatus masks worn tend to fog more intensely and can lead to potential malfunctions.
District Chief John Coseni of Toronto Fire’s mechanical division said the biggest logistical concern on the scene of a fire in extreme cold is the water freezing in fire trucks.
“If a truck isn’t going to be hooked up to the fire pump and used right away they have to start getting the water circulating in the fire pump so it doesn’t freeze,” he said.
Coseni said the technique used to avoid this is to generate some heat in the water by leaving the truck running.
“They will put it in pump gear and leave the truck running and the engine starts to drive the fire pump. So, it spins it and circulates the water from what’s called the booster tank, the water tank, and takes the water from the tank and keeps it going back and forth,” he said.
Conseni explained the friction generated by this process produces enough heat in the water to prevent the pump from freezing and ultimately breaking, adding it also lowers the likelihood of water freezing as its deployed.
He said there are back up methods to help with extreme cold weather conditions.
“As well, in the last 10 years the trucks have gotten auxiliary heaters in the back of truck where the fire pumps are. They’re actually underneath the truck outside where all the valves are,” said Coseni.
Stadler said once the adrenaline rush fades and the freezing cold starts to creep in it can easily affect work.
“In any extreme weather, we have to be aware that the crews are going to be taking a beating, so we have to think of rotating them through sooner than we normally would,” he said.
Stadler explained Toronto Fire trains its staff on how to properly apply water to a burning building in cold weather without further compromising the structural integrity.
“The water that we’re applying to the building isn’t going to run-off like it normally would. We have to be mindful that it will freeze at add weight to the structure,” he said.
Stadler said training for contending with freezing equipment isn’t an easy task because it’s hard to predict how it will occur. He said they train how to overcome challenges associated with freezing.
“It seems pretty obvious, but we train on how to apply salt on the scene early and effectively,” he said.
Alderman said the various training exercises include activities such as obtaining water supply in extreme weather conditions.
“They will know their water flow calculations, water flow abilities and what types of patterns to place on structures. It gives the students a heads up on challenges by doing winter suppression activities,” he said.
Alderman said the program no longer offers opportunities for firefighting placements where students ride-along with a fire crew, but students do have several placements aimed at teaching them all the major facets of firefighting.
“We have a communications placement with the Toronto Fire communications division so that they’re able to see the various activities and calls,” he said.
“They also have a one day medical placement in an emergency room as well as participating in a two day fire prevention placement where they’re assigned to shadow a fire prevention officer,” Alderman said.
“At the end of the program, all our students will participate in written examinations and practical performances both as individual and as a team and are evaluated by representatives from the Fire Marshal’s office,” he said.