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Hi-Line Living: Working in the cold


January 5, 2018

Havre Daily News/Ryan Welch

When temperatures drop - New Year's Day saw Havre tie a record low of minus 32 also hit in 1911 and 1924 - many people want to stay inside and avoid the cold, but not everyone can do that. Some people in north-central Montana, such as law enforcement and firefighters, public works employees, utility workers, farmers and ranchers, railroad employees, truckers and others have to be out in the cold.

In Montana, everything freezes in winter, including the tools local police officers and firefighters use to keep the peace and fight fires.

"It makes it more challenging 'cause you got to deal with all the elements out there," Havre Police Chief Gabe Matosich said Tuesday.

Before officers take calls, they have to make sure their cars, their electronics - like video cameras - are warmed up and ready to go, because once the call comes in there's no waiting around.

Although not by much, there is a bit of an extra cost during winter, Matosich said. Since vehicles idle more - at the police station and usually stay running while on location - fuel costs do rise in winter. But as far as equipment, there is no added cost, as "you got to buy it anyway," Matosich said.

Other adjustments for winter policing includes switching to winter tires on the vehicles as well as added safety precautions to avoid slipping on ice and other related dangers.

Matosich also said vehicle crashes increase during winter as well, most of them the result of slippery road conditions.

Matosich said he doesn't have statistical information to gather what, if any, crimes increase or decrease during winter. He does, however, have anecdotal observations.

"If there's long, dark cold wintery nights and people get depressed a little easier, it seems like that can lead to other things," he said. "If there's no let up in the weather, then you do get a few more disturbance calls."

One of the more obvious changes is the lack of transients during Havre winters, he said, the reduction being a result of unbearable freezing temperatures.

Despite an inclination for the general public to believe wintertime is chill time, the opposite is true for fire fighters, Havre Fire Department Chief Mel Paulson said.

The number one concern in winter is running water.

"When the weather gets cold, particularly zero and below, water supply becomes a hampering operation," Paulson said.

Firefighters have unique training and accompanying protocols aimed to be effective in frigid temperatures. But the fact remains, Paulson said, "Any time it's cold, it's more difficult than in heated situations. ... There really isn't anything much easier about it."

And yes, the different seasons do have their challenges.

"In the summer, a lot of time, it's grass fire. But in the wintertime, because of all the alternative heat sources people use, those can create more fire hazards. This is when furnaces act up. This is when people start stoking their fires a little bit more," he said. "Structure fires typically happen during wintertime, and it's just - it's difficult."

Then there are the roads, a path not laid smooth even for emergency vehicles.

Getting to the fires when the snow is deep adds another aspect to the challenge. It's the same for the ambulance calls, Paulson said. Icy roads slow arrival time.

When it comes to liquids, the amount of cold makes a big difference.

"Once those temperatures hit 20 below, things are just going to freeze, it's just a matter of time," Paulson said.

The cold weather operations work really well above minus 10 degrees. But once it starts dropping below minus 10, even the cold weather operations start getting hampered, Paulson said. Firefighters take certain precautions - keep lines cracked, keep water flowing from the hydrant as much as we can thru the trucks - but at those temperatures it's another level of challenge.

Jeff Jensen, deputy director of Havre Public Works. said the frigid temperatures have not significantly changed working conditions for his crew.

Havre Daily News/Ryan Welch

Workers still have to work out clearing the streets of snow, collecting garbage and other work, Jensen said, but they are not required to stand out in it for long periods of time. He said the crews often do their work from inside plow trucks and front end loaders.

Three workers usually work on weekends, he said.

"It's business as usual. just wintertime work now," Jensen said.

New Year's weekend was not easy, though, he said.

Last Sunday workers were busy clearing snow until 1p.m, when they learned of a water break at the 1000 Block of Cleveland Street required their attention.

Though water breaks happen year round due to antiquated pipes, In low temperatures, pipe breaks can become more frequent in colder temperatures which can cause the pipes to break.


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