In this week's polar vortex, it was all most of us could do to run from a heated car to the warmth of a building. For the city's public safety staff — particularly firefighters and water department employees — extended exposure is part of the job.
"There's been a couple of breaks today," Water Superintendent James Wojcehowicz said Monday, when temperatures were at about minus-15, with wind chills far below that. "It's seasonal. The busiest time of the year for us is December through February. Over 50 percent of the main breaks for us occur in those three months."
Changing ground conditions push pipes to the breaking point, and fixing pipes in any weather "is part of the job," Wojcehowicz said.
It's hard to imagine getting wet in below-zero temperatures, but, "it's a matter of conditioning. There's a mental conditioning aspect of it, and also providing the service to our customers."
Clothing is important. The Water Department provides boots, but it's up to the employee to layer-up appropriately. Gloves can be problematic, though; sometimes, to reconnect a water line, you need the finesse that only a bare hand can provide.
"You're going to get wet, yeah, sometimes," he said.
Firefighters get a call
The Fire Department felt little direct effect of the weather, Assistant Chief James Case said Monday.
"But even our routine calls take a little more importance," he said. "When we transfer a patient from the house to the ambulance, or even on a simple car accident we've had, we've got to take extra precautions with the fire crews that are doing the routine calls. (They) become a little more critical."
For a recent cold-weather fire, the department brought in extra people, and called for Milwaukee County to send a bus "so we had a warm place for the crews to refresh and kind of rehab before they go back and keep fighting the fire."
Displaced homeowners, too, might get refuge in the back of an ambulance or in a county bus.
The immense pressure of a fire hose prevents the water from freezing before it hits its target, Case said, but "we do occasionally have problems with hydrants that are frozen up if there's water in there that's just been standing."
Even as Case talked, the department got a call from a resident.
"A citizen, they locked themselves out of their house, or their door's frozen shut, so we're going to go over there and get them into their house so they don't have to stand out in the cold too long," he said.
Public Works keeps at it
"We picked up garbage and recycling today, as per normal," Director of Public Works William Porter said Monday. "Our plan is to do that tomorrow (too). Normally we would've started Christmas tree pickup today, but we held off on that, because guys would be outside all day riding in the back of the truck, and that didn't seem like a great thing to do."
The recent transformation to automated pickup of garbage and recycling requires just one person, who spends almost all of the route in the heated cab of the truck.
But the extreme cold defeated some measures to fight street ice, Porter said.
"They've not done any anti-icing in about a month. The temperature's just been too cold. You need 15 degrees and rising, and you need dry pavement, and we've either had cold snaps or it's been snowing and the pavement's wet," he said. "We have been pre-wetting (with calcium chloride), we go out salting, but the anti-icing we just haven't been able to to do."
Anti-icing refers to going out in advance of a storm and spreading liquid salt brine.
Pre-wetting, as opposed to anti-icing, keeps salt from bouncing off the roadway.
Porter said dropping salt on the street doesn't melt ice much below 10 or 15 degrees. "When it's 11 below, forget it."
But using salt at least adds traction, perhaps like gravel would, he said.
For police, it's a wash
Extremely cold weather doesn't change police procedure, Lt. Chris Fox said. But the department emphasizes quick response to car accidents that might leave passengers out in the cold.
There are generally fewer crimes that would be committed outdoors, he noted, and with school out and kids at home all day, the nature of the calls can swing in the direction of increased domestic conflicts, he said.
It all comes out about even, Fox said.
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