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Winter presents perils for Latrobe firefighters

Ken Anthony | For Trib Total Media
Firefighters make an initial attempt to enter the burning Cheese House before being driven back by flames at about 11 p.m. Feb. 9 along Route 22 west of Blairsville. The business was destroyed by the fire and several firefighters were treated after they fell on ice while fighting the blaze. Temperatures dipped below 10 degrees that evening.

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Tuesday, Feb. 25, 2014, 9:00 p.m.

Snow, ice and winter winds are adding to the perils for firefighters.

“This time of year's not firefighter-friendly,” Latrobe Volunteer Fire Department Chief John Brasile said. “... The winter is just a little more treacherous than a 90-degree day.”

The risks presented by the flames are the same regardless of the weather, but snow, ice and cold make getting to a fire scene and maneuvering around the burning structure more challenging.

“It's just a different animal when there's snow and cold temperatures,” Brasile said. “It changes a little bit of how we do things and how fast we can do things.”

With fire hoses supplying a steady stream of water, which quickly turns to ice, firefighters face a tough task in finding good footing at fire scenes.

“The first cold snap we had, it was 18 below (zero) without the wind chill factor,” said Mark Piantine, chief of Derry Township Volunteer Fire Company 1 in Bradenville. “The wind chill was minus 45. We had a fire in town here in Bradenville. The water hit the road, and it froze instantly.

“To keep us from getting harmed, they'll move a township truck out to bring salt or cinders or ashes, whatever we need,” he added. “They'll help distribute it out so we don't have anybody slipping and falling.”

Roofs are especially dangerous during winter, with snow and ice making rooftops difficult to maneuver safely and icicles presenting problems from above, Brasile said.

“When you're working a house fire and it's cold like that, you're spraying water, and you're actually forming (icicles),” he said. “They'll do that pretty quick. Then there's always that problem of them falling off and maybe possibly hitting somebody and hurting or killing them.”

Freezing temperatures force firefighters to keep water flowing through hoses constantly to prevent the lines from freezing solid.

“In the heat of the moment, you're fighting a fire, and you just sometimes lay a hose line down. You have to leave it on a trickle. You have to let the water move because ... moving water's not going to freeze,” Brasile said. “When it's closed, it doesn't take very long, and that happened to us. We had to actually thaw some of our hoses before we could get them back on the truck.

“It doesn't take very long. It's a matter of 10 minutes, and you could have a solid hose line that does you no good.”

When fire hoses and firefighters alike need to thaw, Murrysville Medic One's Support 610 team is usually there. In summer, Support 610 helps firefighters cool off and get hydrated. In winter, the unit's challenge is preventing frostbite and hypothermia.

“There's no magic, no hidden secrets,” Medic One administrative director Darrick Gerano said. “We have several large, inflatable shelters that we can put forced-air propane heat into. ... We have a trailer filled with torpedo heaters, so not only can we give them a heated shelter, but at various locations throughout the fire scene we can set up these torpedo heaters to keep these guys warm who might not necessarily be able to go over to the shelters to take a break.”

Both Brasile and Piantine have made efforts to remind the public to help out firefighters by shoveling snow away from fire hydrants. Derry Township recently attached tall flags to its fire hydrants to make them easier to locate if they're covered in snow, Piantine noted.

“Sometimes if we have a hydrant shoveled out, it saves us some time that we don't have to do it if there is an actual emergency,” Brasile said.

Fire crews are also kept busy assisting at the scene of car crashes, and both fire chiefs noted their departments have responded to more calls than usual this year.

Greg Reinbold is a staff writer for Trib Total Media. He can be reached at 724-459-6100, ext. 2913, or

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