Tony Dobrowolski: Working in the cold is not fun


Cold out, eh?

Winter came roaring back with a vengeance last week, and now it's got us all trapped in a brutally cold atmospheric headlock. I like snow, and can handle the cold, but let's be honest -- it's no fun living in a meat locker for more than a couple of days.

It was supposed to warm up a little bit on Saturday, but earlier last week the temperature was minus 3 when I started my car one morning. For a moment, it made me think that spending the next few hours with ‘Kelly and Michael,' ‘Let's Make a Deal,' the ‘Price is Right' or endless reruns of SportsCenter was preferable to leaving the house.

But my time outdoors under these types of conditions is temporary. Like many of us, I mostly work inside, which means braving the frigid elements is usually limited to my commute to and from work.

It made me think about all the people who have to work outside in this type of weather.

Think about how much harder it is for them, people like firefighters, police officers, postal workers and contractors. Some of those jobs are already difficult. Imagine adding a wild card element like freezing weather to it.

"It's not fun," said Pittsfield Fire Chief Robert Czerwinski, when asked what it's like fighting a fire in brutally cold conditions.

"As soon as the ice and the snow gets going those hose lines are no different than the snow guns at Bousquet," he said. "The water can turn to ice and snowflakes. The roads and sidewalks freeze immediately. Often the Highway Department comes in behind us and sands so we don't slip."

Case in point -- A Pittsfield firefighter received a facial laceration on Thursday when he slipped on an icy sidewalk while fighting a fire on McArthur Street. Czerwinski said it can get so cold at fire scenes that firefighters often prefer to be inside of a burning structure battling the flames than out in the street.

"It's the only warm spot," he said.

Going from a super hot environment to a brutally cold one again also has its drawbacks. Czerwinski said the heavy coats that firefighters wear will freeze over again after they leave a burning structure. When they get back to the station, Czerwinski said their coats are often so frozen that firefighters sometimes just stand them up when they take them off.

You might have guessed by now there's no way firefighters can really practice fighting fires when it's brutally cold.

"Not really," Czerwinski said.

But Pittsfield's firefighters are allowed a little leeway when it comes to fighting fires in the winter.

"The uniform requirement is lessened," Czerwinski said. "I'd rather have a guy with longjohns showing than a shirt and badge."

Pittsfield's firefighters are also issued woolen mittens in the winter because the gloves they normally wear to fight fires freeze.

"Those gloves go hard," Czerwinski said.

"There's no way you can remain warm and comfortable out there," he said. "I've come back with an inch of ice on my mustache."

When I was at Dunkin'' Donuts the other day I told the two employees who served me that they should be glad they were working the counter instead of the drive-up window. They told me employees were manning the drive-up window in shifts to keep them from freezing.

The poor fellow who had that task while I was there stood stoically at his post while wearing a jacket and gloves, which from a distance looked like they were more suited for downhill skiing than handing cups of coffee to customers. His co-workers maneuvered around him clad in short-sleeve polo shirts, ball caps, and golf visors.

It made me forget about wondering whether I should spend the morning with ‘Kelly and Michael' instead of my colleagues. It also made me appreciate the sacrifices that Czerwinski's charges have to make when they fight fires in the cold to keep the public safe.

Think about that the next time you complain about the weather.

One more item about fighting fires in the cold.

Czerwinski told me the state Department of Fire Services operates three "rehab vehicles" that can be transported to active fire scenes, and provide firefighters with a place to eat, drink and warm themselves while battling blazes in the cold.

But the closest vehicle to the Berkshires is located in Northampton, which means it often doesn't get here in time to provide local firefighters with any assistance.

The Hinsdale Fire Department has helped rectify that situation by converting a school bus into a rehab vehicle, Czerwinski said. That vehicle traveled to a fire in Windsor on Wednesday, and to one in Blandford on Thursday.

"We're very thankful for the work that Hinsdale has done," Czerwinski said.

Tony Dobrowolski is the business editor of The Berkshire Eagle. He can be reached at


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