By Scott Zorno, CSP
Two of the arguably hardest jobs around are wildland firefighter and snow crew. I have spent over 40 years in snow as a contractor and over 10 years in fire as a part of an incident management team (IMT) specializing in fire within the Rocky Mountain area. Wildland firefighting and “snow fighting” have many similar elements. Both have hard manual labor, specialized trucks and even heavy equipment. Both work in extreme conditions, albeit at opposite ends of the temperature scale. Both require the use of personal protective equipment (PPE). Because of the commonalities, I contend there are many standards in fire that could be adapted to snow and benefit the snow industry. Here are four that are especially worthwhile.
Wildland firefighters must demonstrate physical ability every year via the dreaded “pack test.” This is a test where a firefighter has to walk 3 miles in 45 minutes with a 40-pound backpack on to demonstrate his physical conditioning is acceptable to work in firefighting. Each year the slate is wiped clean and he must retest successfully. He must also attend a half-day safety class that often reviews firefighter fatalities. It creates a yearly reminder of how dangerous the work is.
A similar process for snow fighters may be appropriate. What if everyone on your crew had to walk 1 mile in 15 to 17 minutes with no backpack (drivers included)? That would likely eliminate the significantly unfit shovelers (who would be low producers with possibly a higher injury rate) and encourage drivers to keep a minimum level of fitness. Combine that with safety training that emphasizes personal care on the job and you have a good starting point for a successful season.
Wildland firefighters are required to hold to a 2:1 work-to-rest ratio. That means a maximum 16 hours/day worked. They are also limited to 10 hours of driving, including transport to the fire. These standards are strictly enforced and rarely exceeded even in the most difficult fire response. Many studies over the years have validated the dramatic decrease in productivity and safety awareness when you exceed 16 hours of work in a 24-hour period. Studies by the U.S. Forest Service have also proven the increase in accidents when drivers exceed 10 to 12 hours per day, especially for several days running.
Snowfighters on the other hand seem to consider it macho to work 24 to 36 hours straight. My personal record is about 24 hours with a 1.5-hour nap in the middle. If I am honest, and remember the numerous “close calls” with buildings, cars and other snow equipment, I know I was lucky to not hurt myself or my truck. Online chat forums are full of bad stories and near misses due to too many hours behind the wheel.
The science/medical world would seem to support my empirical observations. According to Popular Science, just one all-nighter can alter your genes negatively for years to come. They go on to say that not enough sleep may help Alzheimer’s disease to take hold.
3. Personnel Capacity
The snow industry is morphing into a “risk mitigation industry.” We need to apply that view to our operations. That introduces rarely considered safety/health issue capacity planning.
Capacity planning varies according to different snow markets, but common denominators can be addressed. Key is average snowfall storm vs. the large end-of-the-scale snowfall. As contractors, we need to handle both. Here is a personal example from a high snowfall market (120 inches per year).
We chose to build routes between 3 and 4 hours that focused on small commercial sites. We discouraged everyone from having snow as their only income. The 4-hour route allowed us to flex with the long-duration storm. For a long storm, our folks did their first pass, took a break, then started a second pass through their route. They rarely pushed over 8 inches, which was good for customer service. We often did a third pass, but usually after 4 to 6 hours off at home or the next day as a final cleanup.
There is a propensity in the industry to see excess (reserve) capacity as a drain on the bottom line. We need to change that and see excess capacity as customer satisfaction and operational risk mitigation insurance. Keep some capacity in reserve so you do not have to push crews past 16 hours per day, even in big storm conditions.
Lastly, wildland firefighters have their trucks and Personal Protective Equipment (PPE) inspected at every fire before starting to work. Trucks are inspected for safety and functionality. PPE is inspected for wear issues and completeness for the job assigned. Even heavy equipment goes through an inspection process. The inspector has the authority to prevent unsafe or noncompliant equipment or crews from working.
Snowfighters could take another lesson here. Most companies inspect their trucks every storm or two. What about subcontractors? Do you check your subs’ trucks even once per year? Safety checks, including lights, warning lights, wipers, defroster, and tire tread are easy to do and might keep a problem from interfering with production. Plow functionality, blade edge wear and hydraulic line inspection are also quick to do. What about subs and PPE? Hat, gloves, polarized eye protection, coats and boots should be standard requirements. Do you have standards you talk about when they sign up? For in-house crews, do you provide all PPE, including footwear, or at the very least inspect it for suitability? Bottom line, are your crews really ready to work safely and effectively, or are you making some risky assumptions?
Wildland firefighting is largely controlled by the federal government. Many industries have learned that when they do not police themselves adequately, then the government steps in and introduces controls. In general, we do not want the government controlling our business, so let’s step up and learn some lessons to improve our performance in these areas.
Scott Zorno, CSP, is chief operating officer of HighCountry Spray Solutions in Conifer, Colorado. Email him at firstname.lastname@example.org. He also is a member of the Snow Business Editorial Advisory Committee.