The winter weather has certainly taken its toll on Philadelphia this week. The city’s store shelves have been cleaned out, the sidewalks have been left desolate, and the normal bustle of the streets has been quieted to the dull hum of snow blowers. But while many residents may be staying warm inside, not everyone gets to enjoy a day off in the comforts of their home.
The firefighters of Engine 19, Ladder 8, located in on East Chelten Avenue in Germantown, certainly do not get the day off because of snowy conditions. They work as hard as they normally do, not letting the several feet of snow interrupt their responsibilities.
Each member of the department works a 12-hour shift. The firemen work in larger groups, while the medics usually work in teams of two, one a paramedic and the other a driver. It is not like the movies, where fire fighters slide down a pole to get to their equipment when a call comes. They do not sit in a lounge area or dine in a nice kitchen. They simply sit and wait for whatever the snow may bring their way.
“It makes it harder to get to people,” said Erin Glascow, a paramedic at the fire station. “And it makes the equipment harder to use.”
While all of this heavy snowfall may not be a common occurrence in Philadelphia, Glascow explained that the fire station operates just like any other regular day. The team at Engine 19 prepares as it normally does and waits for a call signaling that help is needed. Last weekend’s snowfall sent the department out on 11 or 12 runs, which is no different than an average day.
“Snow days, it’s unpredictable,” said Glascow. “Today so far we’ve only done two (runs).”
Medical emergencies seem to be slower in the winter, leaving the majority of Engine 19’s runs as responses to fire emergencies. Joe Melnik, a third-year firefighter at the department, explained that fires are more common during the winter months because area residents use gasoline or kerosene heaters without knowing how to use them properly.
In fact, the Philadelphia Fire Department’s Web site lists these types of heaters as dangerous and highly recommends that people do not use them. It also states that most fires involving portable heaters are caused by improper use, improper fueling or improper maintenance of the heater. The Philadelphia Fire Code does, however, permit the use of portable kerosene heaters, but only in one- and two-family dwellings.
During the winter months, fire runs are the most common and happen more often than during the warmer months. Medical runs are less common because people tend to be more careful, especially since many people stay indoors.
“Snow days people usually don’t want to do anything, like, to get hurt, so they usually stay in their house,” said Melnik.
In fact, most people do not even go outside to shovel their sidewalk, which makes it twice as hard for the medical personnel to enter a house when they respond to a call.
“This morning we responded to a cardiac arrest call,” said Glascow. “We ended up treating the patient for 10 extra minutes because it took us longer to get into the house and get the patient out.”
Glascow said that many times, it becomes the job of the fire fighters to shovel the snow off of the sidewalks. Shoveling snow can sometimes even be the cause of an emergency, especially for the elderly. So, while it takes extra time on their part, the fire personnel are more than willing to do anything they can to make their jobs easier enabling them to give help more quickly.
It’s not just the snow-covered sidewalks that cause trouble, but the roads as well. Germantown is lined with side streets, which tend to be less traveled, leaving the plow trucks to save them for last. While it normally takes the fire department four minutes or less to arrive at their needed location, the snow often doubles the time it takes.
“The runs take a lot longer so if someone’s really in need, it just takes a lot longer to get to them,” said Melnik. “I mean we cover from Wissahickon Avenue to Ardleigh Street. It’s a pretty big area.”
In fact, it is about 15 miles. That’s a lot of territory to cover. And narrow, one-way streets make matters worse. But the fire department at Engine 19, Ladder 8 makes do.
The department also has to deal with where the plow trucks dump the snow.
“They can cover a fire hydrant and we don’t know it’s there, so we’ve got to search for fire hydrants sometimes,” said Melnik. “It’s kind of a pain.”
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