Story and photos by
Ricky J. Carrasco
During the Deep Freeze of 2011, most El Pasoans found themselves at home trying to stay warm, perhaps under the covers, with cups of hot coffee, and enjoying their days off. All El Paso area schools were cancelled for almost a week and many businesses advised their employees to stay home in the name of safety.
But for some, the freeze brought with it many hours of difficult, often dangerous, work. Emergency workers from across the Borderland were called to duty. Police officers, utility workers, and firefighters worked in the harshest weather in recent memory to help out the regular citizen. Firefighters already have a dangerous job, but the recent weather brought new, unexpected dangers.
The men of Central Fire Station “A” Shift were on call during the worst of the weather, where temperatures bottomed out at -15 degrees with the wind chill factor. The El Paso Fire Department responded to over 3000 calls during the Deep Freeze. Most were simple calls to shut-off water and electricity. Though that might seem mundane, even those had inherent dangers to the firefighters.
Central Station is largely a Hazardous Materials station, responding to all HazMat calls within the county. On this day, they supported the entire city’s stations, responding to calls city-wide. In their own words, the firefighters of Station 1 describe their experiences that day that reflect those of most firefighters.
Lt. Ben Rodriguez, 13 year in EPFD: “We are a dedicated HazMat team. But on that day, we responded to many floodings, burst pipes, medical calls caused by the ice, and apartment fire and a gas spill caused by a vehicle hit and run. It was difficult to get around, but we equip our rigs with snow chains. Many of our firefighters experienced some kind of fall due to black ice on sidewalks and streets. One of our guys fell at an apartment fire, spraining his ankle, but he kept working and remained on duty. The cold only aggravated his injury. He responded to all our calls but finally, after the fuel spill, he went to the hospital to get checked out.
“We responded to a call at a vacant downtown building that had burst pipes. The basement had at least 8 inches of standing water that we had to cross to turn off the water supply. Our quick-hitches (fire suits) got wet up to the knees. As soon as we got back to the rig, the boots froze and the leather split from the cold. After that, we had to respond to a HazMat situation on Mesa near University and Kirby from 3 to 7am, when it was the coldest. We are thankful to the Wataburger on the corner for donating coffee and a place to warm up.”
Lt. Michael Welch, 18 years of service: “We responded to that flooding, after which our boots froze. We could feel the cold in our eyes, as if the eyelids were freezing and sticking to our eyes, especially when it became windy. Many of us didn’t notice how cold it was because our skin and feet became numb after a while. Even our Micro-Blaze (a chemical/microbe agent used to neutralize many haz-mat materials) began to freeze. Some of the agencies we called to re-supply us couldn’t because their supply had frozen solid.
“Thankfully, it was not a storm, as many have called it. It was a freeze. Had it been an actual storm, it could’ve been disastrous. The best piece of advice I would give because of this freeze would be that home and building owners should know where the water and utility shut-offs are and how to operate them.”
Lt. David Marquez, 18 years of service: “Our shift starts at 11:45 and we were out on calls almost immediately. We were so busy, nobody had a chance to sleep in our 24 hour shift. I was on (rescue vehicle) Squad 1 from the farthest west of the city down to Socorro Road to shut off water and back up the other stations. After the apartment fire, I found my regulator on my breathing apparatus froze. In the two minutes that I took off my gloves to change, I found that they froze too. At the fuel spill, I got some wind burn on my cheeks, even under the mask and balaclava.
“Sometimes, we’d feel a little helpless because we’d shut-off the water to a home, and the owners would ask us what they could do for water, and we couldn’t respond adequately. We are an emergency service and there is only so much we can do.
“We still learn to expect the unexpected. I think we performed well, but there’s always something to learn.”
Charles Singleton is recently graduated from the EPFD Training Academy. The day of the freeze was only his second shift on duty. “I was almost overwhelmed from the sheer number of calls. Knowing that everybody is on the move. On most days, we use maybe 4 channels on the radio. That day we were using all ten channels and they were all busy all day. All my seniors have told me that even if I stay for ten or fifteen more years, I may never see a day like that day again.
“Many guys were telling me not to worry, it’s not like this all the time. It was so cold, afterwards I was thawing out my socks. We all started to lose feeling in our feet.”
“It’s a learning process every day. That day was an eye opener but it was a good learning experience and I had all the guys and their knowledge for support.