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Severe Weather 101

Severe Weather 101

Captain Jeff Draper

Here in the Central Texas Plains, severe weather can occur year round. We have had snow as late as April, tornadoes and flooding in December, and droughts from hell can occur virtually any time of year. Granted Springtime is the main period for severe weather in most places, but many of us in the Southern states have a second season from October to December. Due to our climate, 3” of snow or half an inch of ice constitutes severe weather also. Every winter we go through preparations for the ice and snow. Break out the chains, coordinate with the DOT on salt/sanding, ready the trucks, decide which trucks will or won’t go out on the ice, prepare staff to end up getting stuck in station for several days. The last thing you want to do is take out your best engine and wreck it. We will usually only run our 4WD brush trucks, and a 6WD deuce and a half beast we have that has a 1200 gallon CAFS unit.

Flooding is the number one killer in Texas, and probably most other states. 80% of flood related deaths occur in vehicles. (The above picture was taken by me earlier this year. This person was rescued during the night while we were there, and the car later floated up when the water rose and eventually wedged itself in that position). A flood rescue is the most dangerous thing you can do. Is your department ready for it? Mine is not, but luckily, we don’t have any swift water locations in district. Very few of our people are trained in swift water rescue. I cannot count how many scenes I have seen where the fire personnel were working in the water with full bunker gear on. This is insane. You cannot possibly swim with gear on. You will sink like a rock, and have no range of motion. NEVER do this. It takes much more than a throw bag rope and life vest to attempt a rescue. Anyone involved with a swift water rescue should be trained in swift water. The same rules apply for still water rescues too. Do not wear bunker gear. Seems obvious, but you may be surprised. Central Texas is flash flood alley capitol of the nation. We should know it and do the best, but it doesn’t always happen.

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My favorite subject is Thunderstorms and Tornadoes. I lead a chase team that has about a dozen personnel that chase all over Texas, and occasionally Oklahoma. About half of us are fire officers and EMS trained as EMT-B to Paramedic. Severe thunderstorms are the most dangerous driving situation you can find yourself in. You can have rain falling in excess of 6-12” per hour. (When it is raining so hard you have trouble seeing while driving, that is about 3” an hour). You can encounter hail up to grapefruit size and larger. This does sufficient damage by the way. You can have deadly cloud to ground lightning strikes, downed power lines and poles, debris, roadway flooding you can’t see, winds in excess of 70 MPH, and the list goes on and on. A simple response to a downed line or water flooding a home can result in an unexpected disaster before you know it. Not to mention your role in rescue response after a large tornado. It can only be compared to a commercial aircraft crash. Massive damage, mass casualties, mental trauma unimaginable, and CISD counseling afterwards if bad enough.

In 1997, Jarrell Texas, a town of about 350 people just North of Austin, suffered an F-5 tornado. Wind ratings in an F-5 are 261-318 MPH. This funnel crossed a subdivision on the edge of town, and virtually wiped it off the map. Houses were cleared to nothing but bare slabs; no plumbing, no trees, no vehicles, etc. In a matter of 5 minutes, 27 people died a violent death. It sucked the pavement off the road, stripped cattle down to the bone, speared them with stalks of grain, sucked water from lakes, mangled vehicles into unrecognizable messes, and killed whole families. Some people were found intact. Most were only found in pieces and identified by DNA. Body parts were found in trees a mile down path. 30 some vehicles, or parts of, were never found. It takes an unimaginable force to destroy engine blocks and transmissions. As the storm progressed, reports came in that chunks of vehicles were falling into Lake Travis (my district) some 45 miles away. We later found a watch that had been broken and stopped at the exact time it hit. It was hanging in a cedar tree 45 miles away. A box of checks was found almost 100 miles away. Amazingly, other objects were found undamaged. A bottle of champagne was found unbroken. Chickens were found stripped but alive, one woman was hiding in her bathtub in her home, and when the tornado hit, she was shot out across the pastures like a toboggan sled in the Olympics, some 300 feet, and she survived. There is no real training for this kind of response. You must fall back on all training, and be aware of every hazard there is, from nails in the ground, live wires, gas leaks, BSI to protect from bodily fluids and remains, crime scene mentality for the whole scene, etc. Also, should you ever find yourself in a vehicle facing a tornado that you can’t get away from, DO NOT hide underneath an underpass. Thanks to that one video, many people now do this. It is far from safe. In the 1999 Oklahoma F-5, many people did this, and were sucked out to their death, leaving behind eerie mud spattered outlines of their bodies against the wall before they were sucked out. (Insert your “Suck-zone” joke here).

Lightning is an equally dangerous hazard. It can strike more than 15 miles from a storm cell. If you can hear thunder, you are still in danger. Ground ladders, platform and ladder trucks are especially at risk. A lightning strike is 5 times hotter than the surface of the sun, and can produce millions of amps (not volts). Amps will kill you. We have seen small trees disintegrate into dust, car radio antennas get struck while driving. Always use an HT if possible when around lightning. Windows should be up completely. I even heard one story where a bank teller was struck inside a drive-thru bank, on a sunny day, by the lightning hitting the speaker and coming into the building.

Snow and ice can also be classified as severe weather. I’m sure anyone up North that has experienced a good blizzard can relate. Roads become impassible, people can become stranded for days in their homes or vehicles. Hypothermia is a lethal emergency and can onset quickly. Since we have very little of that down South, I cannot preach on that, but I’m sure we all know how bad it can be. Simple actions like walking can be lethal if you slip and fall. Driving is usually just insane.

As most know, wildfires can create their own weather patterns within themselves. Extreme winds can be produced within the fireground from heat ducting, and these can actually behave very much like a large thunderstorm. Hence some of the shots we have seen of fire tornadoes. Virtually any weather event can produce multiple negative effects on it’s immediate environment. This is a very brief article on weather hazards. I could write enough details to fill a book from my weather experiences. I will probably write another when we get into spring time. For now, I hope everyone stays warm and safe.