This intersection (109 St. and 104 Ave.), now clear, was covered with piles of snow during the cold snap this month.  (Layla Dart)

Red lights responding in the snow

If you thought it was rough getting through our recent deep freeze
spare a thought for the city’s long-suffering first responders
By Layla Dart

MOUNDS OF snow, patches of ice, and horrid road conditions are aspects of winter driving that every Edmontonian knows well. Most of us cling white-knuckled to our steering wheels and hang on for dear life. But how do our first responders handle driving in these conditions, and how does it affect their work?

In mid-January, Edmonton experienced a deadly cold snap, with temperatures falling below -30 C, without wind chill. Snow plows worked around the clock to clear away the snow, but the roads stayed covered, a formula for disaster for drivers.  

Sometimes, it seemed as if you couldn’t go 10 minutes without hearing sirens wailing. 

But while everyday drivers are struggling, they are not the only ones on the road. First responders also deal with those road conditions.

“Believe it or not, our trucks get stuck in the snow all the time,” says Gerald O’Connor, fire chief for District 1.

While the roads may be an issue, the biggest enemy of first responders is the cold. Water is a necessary component for extinguishing fires. But when the temperatures drop below freezing, things can get problematic. 

“If we don’t keep the water moving, it wants to freeze up on us,” O’Connor says.

If the water were to freeze inside the hose, it would be rendered useless. While worrying about the water and putting the fire out, firefighters also have to worry about their personal safety. When the temperatures are extremely low, they rotate shifts in 20- to 30-minute blocks, after which the crew is sent to warm up at either the station or an on-site ‘rehab centre.’

“We try to rotate out firefighters as quickly as possible when it’s cold so they have less exposure to those elements,” O’Connor says.

Whether it is an accident, big or small, a fire, or a medical crisis downtown, first responders are constantly handling emergencies. Their time on the road is brief, but safety is a priority for them and everyone around them. 

Conditions may change and get worse, but a first responder’s job doesn’t. Through snow and ice, they still need to get around quickly to help those in need.

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