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Westmoreland County firefighters draw on past experiences to deal with subzero cold

Paul Peirce
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Murrysville Medic One support 610 unit could be summoned to erect a warming station for firefighters like this one at house fire in 2018 in the event of an emergency in subzero temperatures between Wednesday and Thursday in Westmoreland County.

As Westmoreland County firefighters prepare for the potential of subzero temperatures late Wednesday into Thursday when responding to emergencies, Delmont Volunteer Fire Department Chief Rich Balik said lessons learned at a fatal fire just over a year ago in nearby Salem Township assisted it in its planning.

On Jan. 5, 2018, multiple area departments had to battle subzero windchills as well as flames at a 1 a.m. fire on Fennel Streeet that claimed the life of 22-year-old Jeremy Rugh, who was unable to escape his burning home.

Temperatures that day ranged between a high of 9 degrees and a low of zero.

Balik said the below zero windchills that early morning caused some area departments’ equipment to freeze including breathing apparatus and extension ladders and like many area departments, Delmont firefighters this week have been making preparations to deal with potentially worse conditions if they are called to a fire.

“We’re trying to be pro-active based on our experiences. We’ve got a some torpedo heaters loaded to take to a scene so our pumps don’t freeze on us,” Balik said.

Balik said firefighters also have some electric heaters ready to keep firefighters warm in the event of an emergency.

“Due to the extremely cold weather, we’ve also asked for volunteers to stay overnight at the fire department (Wednesday night) so we don’t have to worry about firefighters’ cars not being able to start due to the extreme cold. We’ll be able to move out instantly on a call instead of having to wait from someone to respond,” Balik said.

He said two volunteers have already stepped in for the extra duties and they could have as many as four firefighters staying at the fire hall.

In Greensburg, fire chief and public works director Tom Bell said that fire department has also been been making preparations.

“My biggest concern is when you have such a deep drop you could have hydrants freeze. That is a major concern because you just don’t know,” Bell said.

Secondly, Bell said among volunteer departments it’s most important to have sufficient personnel respond to fires.

“When it dips to temperatures this cold, some guys may be reluctant to come,” Bell said.

Protecting volunteers who do respond for emergencies in severe cold weather is also a significant concern, Bell said.

Bell said if there is a fire, Murrysville Medic One’s support 610 unit will be there to establish warming stations, and “provide firemen with hot soup and hot chocalate to help warm them up.”

Also, Bell said a plan is in place with the Westmoreland County Transit Authority to get a bus to the scene of a fire.

“They will get there and we can get the firefighters out in the cold into a warm bus to fight the temperatures. We also have a smaller, special operations van that we can rotate firefighters in and out of to get them warm,” Bell said.

Bell added that even after the subzero temperatures depart later Thursday, emergency responders could still have major tasks ahead.

“One other thing that is very worrisome is that when we have such a deep freeze, is when we thaw out. As frozen pipes thaw in some of these buildings they could burst causing flooding problems,” Bell said.

“At this point, we just don’t know what’s going to happen. But I do know I’m keeping my fingers crossed right now,” he said.

Paul Peirce is a Tribune-Review staff writer. You can contact Paul at 724-850-2860, [email protected] or via Twitter @ppeirce_trib.