Firefighter Brian Marts was battling a raging blaze in an apartment building, but he was also fighting the bitter cold.
Spray from his hose in an elevated bucket encased his helmet, coat and gloves in layers of glassy ice that made it tough to move. Icicles hung from ladders and power lines. Slick fire escapes and the streets below made every step treacherous for both firefighters and those fleeing the flames. With temperatures in the teens, frostbite became another real threat.
"Everyone really shows true grit. You dig deep because that's what you do," Marts recalled of the Jan. 2 blaze in the Bronx that destroyed a four-story building and injured 23 people. "The cold doesn't last forever."
But it seemingly has. A cold snap that has plunged much of the nation into a deep freeze for weeks has also created a potentially deadly combination for firefighters: More fires caused by space heaters or unattended flames, and treacherous conditions that can slow crews down when every second counts.
Fires last month in New York City alone killed 27 people, the city's deadliest December in a decade. That included 13 killed in a Dec. 29 blaze started by a toddler playing with stove burners. Another fire in Brooklyn that killed a mother and three of her children was started by candles from a Hanukkah menorah. Firefighters battled blazes from New Jersey to Louisiana to Maryland as the cold continued.
Five buildings in Newark were destroyed early Friday morning after firefighters battled freezing temperatures and high wind that carried the flames across the street. When firefighters were finished, the buildings were encased in ice.
Frozen hydrants, seized hoses, ice-stuck ladders, equipment failures and exposure to the cold are just some of the threats cold-weather departments prepare for months in advance, even though officials acknowledge they can only do so much.
"The bottom line is our frame of mind changes in wintertime," said Chicago Fire Department Lieutenant Hugh Dennehy. "We're thinking about water supply in a different way, and about being prepared for the elements when they're at their worst."
To keep hydrants from freezing, for example, Chicago's department starts in the fall, draining standing water left in them and pushing their reservoirs below the frost line. Rochester, New York's department has an "adopt-a-hydrant" program where residents can clear away snow from hydrants and mark it on a website. New York City, Boston and other cities encourage residents to shovel out hydrants and inspect them as the season wears on.
But that's just the beginning. Firefighters set up extra layers in their go-kits, and some rub Vaseline on their faces to protect skin. Engineers who drive the trucks keep coffee cans full of sand or salt to add traction to the slick ground. Teams rotate in and out faster to avoid hypothermia.
Firefighters exposed to extremes undergo medical evaluation and rehydration. In Rochester, the city sends buses to fire scenes to serve as warming shelters for firefighters rotating in and out of service. Some departments keep snowmobiles and ATVs at the ready to move people and supplies, and steam trucks to free firefighters who have become frozen to their hoses.
"At times — I'm going to be honest with you — it can be really brutal as far as the cold conditions," said Rochester firefighter Amon Hudson. "Really, 'miserable' is the word I want to use."
With 30 years on the job, Buffalo Fire Division Chief Peter Kertzie said every firefighter develops his own tricks. The boots he wears in winter are a half size bigger than the ones he wears the rest of the year, to allow room for two pairs of socks. He taped the handles of his tools with friction tape for a better grip and used to stud his boots with screws to improve his traction on ice.
"There's no magic thing for handling Mother Nature," Kertzie said. "It just makes it tougher on everyone."
That includes fire victims. In the Jan. 2 blaze in the Bronx, one tenant who got out told reporters, "I literally slipped down the fire escape with my babies. The fire department's throwing water at the same time we're coming down the fire escape." In Chicago, Dennehy said he broke his thumb once slipping on an icy job. During another bitterly cold day, he got soaked and then had to ride in an open-air seat on the way back to the station and became frozen to his seat. "Two guys had to pull me out."
"When we're working at a fire scene, you're keeping warm just from working and sweating," Dennehy said. "But after the fire is over and you slow down, that's when the cold hits."