KALAMAZOO, Mich. — While most of us plan to stay indoors during the extreme cold, firefighters and paramedics don't have that option.
With furnaces and space heaters in full force, fire danger spike in West Michigan during the winter months. The risk resulted in a drastic change to firefighter response protocol in severe weather.
“We’ll need to have multiple alarms in this kind of temperatures because I got to have more people to cycle through,” said Osthemo Township Fire Chief Mark Barnes.
Barnes said recovery time is everything since firefighters can't be exposed to the elements for long during arctic conditions.
“We perspire profusely, we throw water out there, which turns to steam and comes back and gets the firefighter all wet, and then they put the warm fire out and now they’re in the cold and wet,” Barnes said.
Barnes received an important tool to help response time: the 5th District Major Incident Support Unit, which is an emergency response truck.
“We brought it out of the warehouse, so this gives us faster deployment in the region,” Barnes said.
The vehicle was stationed at the Osthemo Fire Department for a few days during the deep freeze.
“We need to hydrate people that are working hard. Even though it's this cold outside initially when they arrive on scene, they're going to do a lot of muscular activity, which creates perspiration, so they have to re-hydrate,” Barnes said.
The emergency response vehicle is shared by a five-county region and could deployed in mass emergency situations, like the 193 vehicle pile-up in 2015 on Interstate 94 in Calhoun County.
“If I’m worried about multi-car accidents on the highway, I can put this right on scene,” Barnes said.
As for the equipment, Barnes said there are unavoidable challenges in the frigid conditions.
“You're just dealing with water. You can do so many things with water, but it's going to freeze,” Barnes said.
On Wednesday, Kalamazoo Public Safety officers had components on a truck freeze, and response was further hampered by frozen water lines in a nearby hydrant.
Barnes said it’s important for people to help dig fire hydrants out in their neighborhood.
“If guys are shoveling through the snowbanks trying to find it, we may run out of water before we get that line established,” Barnes said.
Kalamazoo Public Services Director James Baker said residents aren't required to clean fire hydrants, but are asked to help if they can.