First responders: Even in the cold, their work doesn’t stop

St. Paul firefighters were at the scene of a house fire Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019.  Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press
St. Paul firefighters were at the scene of a house fire Wednesday, Jan. 30, 2019. Jean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer PressJean Pieri / St. Paul Pioneer Press

ST. PAUL -- When a St. Paul house caught fire Wednesday morning, Jan. 30, it was so dangerously cold that firefighters were told to spend no more than 10 minutes at a time fighting the fire before another crew rotated in.

Meanwhile, hours earlier police officers found themselves running after a homicide suspect outdoors on Tuesday night, while other personnel were outside investigating.

An arctic air mass created the coldest conditions the Twin Cities have seen in nearly 25 years, with temperatures reaching nearly 30 below zero Wednesday morning. They aren’t expected to rise above zero until Thursday afternoon.

Schools and various businesses closed, and the U.S. Postal Service halted delivery. But the work didn’t stop for emergency first responders.

“SPPD 24/7 – 365 – since 1854,” St. Paul Police Chief Todd Axtell posted Tuesday night on social media. “Yep, even with -30 Fahrenheit and -55 windchill. As most enjoy a warm environment tonight, please take a moment to reflect on the incredible service and sacrifices of our police officers and all other public safety professionals.”

Col. Matt Langer, Minnesota State Patrol chief, noted that troopers have protected the state’s roadways since 1929.

“We have never taken a day off — and today is no exception,” he wrote in a statement. “Troopers are braving the elements doing their jobs today to keep our roads safe, despite the dangers of drivers who do not follow our advice. Commercial vehicle inspections are working to make sure trucks are safe. Dispatchers are taking hundreds of calls to help motorists.”

Gov. Tim Walz took to Twitter to thank police officers and firefighters for keeping Minnesotans safe.

Firefighters rotate in, warm up on a city bus

At the Wednesday morning fire in St. Paul’s North End, the fire department had three times the normal number of firefighters at the scene because of the cold, said Assistant Fire Chief Mike Gaede. At one point, 40 to 50 firefighters worked the blaze.

“The extreme conditions made it a difficult, difficult fire to fight,” he said. Firefighters battled the fire for three hours.

Individual firefighters fought the fire for five to 10 minutes at a time, and then went onto a waiting Metro Transit bus to warm up themselves and their gear before heading back out.

Hose lines and hydrants froze up. A ladder truck was disabled by the cold and towed away.

Firefighters initially had the affected family in a department vehicle to stay out of the cold and then took them to a fire station. Red Cross volunteers assisted them.

“You can imagine it was 4:30 in the morning — they were in bed, they didn’t have coats and shoes,” Gaede said.

Besides the fire, Wednesday was busy for firefighters. They were called to reports of broken water pipes, carbon monoxide alarms going off, car crashes and medical situations, Gaede said.

Regions Hospital has been treating frostbite cases. Since Friday, the St. Paul hospital has seen more than 30 people with frostbite — 11 came in between Tuesday afternoon and Wednesday afternoon. Hennepin County Medical Center in Minneapolis also reported treating many patients for cold weather-related injuries. Numerous frostbite cases resulted in more than a dozen admissions and nearly as many outpatient cases.

Police officers suit up in layers

For the first 15 years or so that Paul Kuntz was a St. Paul police officer, he never wore a jacket in the winter. As he got older, he said the weather started affecting him more and he donned a coat in recent years.

But no matter the weather conditions, “you have to focus on the job that needs to be done,” said Kuntz, who is now president of the St. Paul police union.

Sgt. Mike Ernster, a St. Paul officer for 24 years, said officers have to take turns working outside in the perilous weather and then get inside or into a squad car to warm up.

“Like anybody else, they’re wearing hats, gloves, jackets — sometimes multiple jackets — to stay warm, but they’re human and they feel the extreme cold,” Ernster said.

Officers have been asked to keep an extra eye out for homeless people or others caught in the cold. They’re also watching out for each other to ensure they’re safe, Ernster said.