For some reading this winter may just have begun for others you may be well into winter. For new and seasoned apparatus operators this can be a very challenging time to say the least. But a couple of questions come to mind “What has your fire department done to prepare new apparatus operators for winter driving?” and “What has your fire department done to prepare experienced operators for winter driving?” The answers to these questions are as varied as the fire service itself. Preparing for winter driving in many cases acts as a snapshot of how the fire department is trained, organized, supervised and operates.
Some fire departments are supervised by the fair weather fire chief. The fair weather fire chief will only allow fire apparatus to leave the fire station on driver training on a sunny, 70 degree, Sunday, in July. Yet this same fire chief has the expectation that the fire apparatus are going to show up safely in all kinds of weather and conditions 24/7/365. In February, at night, with a 30 mph wind and six inches of snow on the road, going to a confirmed working fire with people trapped, it is no time for any operator but especially a new operator to figure out how the apparatus is going to handle and stop under these circumstances and conditions. Also understanding that most apparatus operators are suppose to be familiar with and safely operate multiple different types of apparatus, manufactured in different years and have the potential to be built by different manufactures. This certainly sounds like a disaster waiting to happen.
Some fire departments have the proactive fire chief who encourages the department’s apparatus operators to train in and for inclement weather. That is not to say that the fire chief should let apparatus operators driver train in a blizzard or an ice storm, common sense should prevail. However letting operators take the apparatus to a large parking lot or some other controlled environment, during day light hours, with several inches of snow cover to figure out how the apparatus and the operator are going to handle inclement weather, seems to be a pretty prudent approach. This is especially true if the chief wants the apparatus to show up in one piece during periods of inclement weather, at night with the stress of a response.
Winter Driving Tips to Keep in Mind
Braking: Start braking sooner than you would under normal driving conditions.
- Speed: Slow down! No one should expect the apparatus to show up in the same amount of time with six inches of snow on the ground vs. dry pavement. Remember you are part of the solution do not become part of the problem.
- Steep or Long Grades: You should know your area, slow down long before arriving at a Steep or Long Grade, have the apparatus in the lowest gear and cover the brake. Always have a way out.
- Slippery Pavement: On Slippery, Snowy or Icy pavement, reduce your speed, drive slowly and with a heighten state of situational awareness.
- Winding and Narrow Roads: Keep well to the center of the lane, do not drift off the edge of the road. Drive slowly and scan ahead as far as you can.
- Corners: Slow down well in advance of the corner. Understand that the weight of the vehicle pushing you forward may well overpower your ability to maintain traction, control and steer the apparatus it may simply just go straight.
- Turning: Slow down and signal your intentions long before the turn to warn others around you. As with Cornering Understand that the weight of the vehicle pushing you forward may well overpower your ability to maintain traction, control and steer the apparatus it may simply just go straight.
- Losing Control when Cornering: Most defensive driving experts will advise you to steer into the turn although human nature may have you react differently.
- Intersections: When approaching an intersection that has a green light slow almost to a stop and understand that civilian drivers may not be able to stop in the snow or on the ice regardless of what color the light is (Figure #1). When approaching a red light you must come to a complete stop and make sure that all civilian drivers have come to a complete stop and are granting the right of way to you and are not going to slide into you.
- Auxiliary Braking Systems: When I drove in the snow I would leave the Engine Brake on as long as I maintained traction and it would actually help me control and stop the vehicle. However in the ice I would turn the Engine Brake off not wanting it to throw the apparatus into a skid or spin. Today I would guide my action based on the recommendations of Auxiliary Brake Manufacturer. This information is generally found in the Auxiliary Brake Manufacturers Operators Manual.
- Apparatus Maintenance: Tires must have 4/32” tread depth and should be mud and snow tires. Apparatus brakes must be in proper adjustment so that they do not grab and throw the vehicle into a skid or spin.
- Automatic Tire Chains: By most accounts are only good for a few inches of snow. Any chains in contact with the tires make it much harder to stop the apparatus as there is less road surface area in contact with the tire.
- Full Chains: Are generally put on for significant snow fall (six inches or more Figure #2) or in absence of Automatic Chains. Any chains in contact with the tires make it much harder to stop the apparatus as there is less road surface area in contact with the tire.
In the next column we will examine in depth the F.D.N.Y.’s new Modified Response Plan.
Firehouse Magazine January 2011
BY: Michael Wilbur