Fire officials say cold is a challenge, but neighbors can help

INDIANAPOLIS, Ind. – When bitter cold sets in, firefighters in central Indiana know they face more challenges than just the flames in front of them.

“Firefighters are moving, a lot of times you can hear the gear cracking as they’re moving in it,” said Wayne Township Fire Captain Mike Pruitt.

Pruitt was describing the layer of ice coating protective gear and other equipment commonly found at winter fire scenes. In single-digit temperatures, Pruitt says it can take only a few minutes for spraying water to coat equipment and freeze hoses.

“We have to get that hose up as quick as we can,” Pruitt said. “Because if we don’t get it up quickly, then it’s going to start freezing and basically it’s like moving around lead pipes at that point.”

Extreme temperatures also create slick walking surfaces and sudden shocks to the body.

“When they come out of that fire, now they’re exposed to that cold,” Pruitt said. “So hypothermia and frostbite become a huge issue for us.”

But perhaps the most frustrating and costly cold weather challenge comes when a fire crew arrives to find a frozen or snow-covered fire hydrant. Pruitt explained that while demonstrating how a propane torch is used to melt a frozen hydrant.

“If this is frozen when we arrive, then we have to attack it with some heat to get it thawed quickly,” he said. “And so that can take a couple extra minutes and we know that fire doubles in size every minute.”

Similar frustration comes when a hydrant is found to be buried under snow in a neighborhood, he says.

“If firefighters have to jump off and start digging a hydrant that’s completely buried, we’re talking three, four, five additional minutes to get those hooked up to this hydrant,” Pruitt said. “That could be a lot more loss of property or life for that matter.”

Roughly 37,000 fire hydrants around Indianapolis are regularly inspected by Citizens Energy as part of a partnership with the City of Indianapolis. Since the partnership and inspections started in 2010, fire officials say frozen hydrants are less of a problem than they used to be.

Still, Pruitt says anybody can help the effort by checking on the fire hydrants on their streets when cold weather sets in. They can also help by clearing snow away from hydrants near their homes.

“So making sure these fire hydrants are cleared away three feet in every direction will make a huge difference,” Pruitt said.

Neighbors can also help fire departments by reporting suspicious activity in homes that are supposed to be vacant.

“It’s super important that neighbors call and let us know if there’s unusual activity happening,” said Indianapolis Fire Department Battalion Chief, Rita Reith.

On Friday, investigators believe a vacant house fire in the 200 block of North Richland Street was started by someone who shouldn’t have been in the house in the first place. Neighbors reported squatters in the home before the fire started.

“We know that it’s freezing and people are looking for shelter, we get it,” Reith said. “But at the end of the day, what we don’t want, is for them to start a fire inside the structure to stay warm, that fire then communicates to the next door neighbor’s house and burns their house down as well.”

Reith says responding to vacant house fires can be very dangerous to firefighters because the structural integrity of a vacant home is not known. Weakened floors and walls can put at sudden risk.

Reporting illegal activity in a vacant house could stop a fire before it starts, Reith said.

“And so what we need neighbors to do is be vigilant about what’s happening in their own neighborhoods,” Reith said. “They know their neighborhoods better than anybody else.”

Anyone wishing to report squatters or other illegal activity in a vacant house should call their local police department.

Anyone wishing to report a frozen or damaged fire hydrant should contact their local water utility. In Indianapolis, that means calling Citizens Energy at (317) 924-3311.

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