By Tim McGrath
Reacting in early February to threats of a major winter storm, the Chicago (IL) Fire Department, in what may be a first for a large city, added a fleet of snowmobiles to its ambulance and fire units, making the neighborhoods more accessible and greatly reducing response times on emergency medical runs. Used throughout the blizzard and its two-day aftermath, the motorized sleds played a key role in at least 400 rescues, some of them life-saving.
Richard Rosado, of the department's Office of Media Affairs, called the effort a success. "The snowmobiles were great," he said. "They helped our guys to do their job and keep the public safe."
As the near-record storm approached, Chicago rented some 50 machines from an outlet in Wisconsin. When the storm hit, dropping 12 inches in as many hours then adding eight more for good measure, the rigs were gassed up and ready to go in firehouses across the city.
Rosado said that a firefighter was assigned to each snowmobile. When an emergency call came in, a snowmobile would be dispatched with an ambulance and either a truck or an engine company. Staying on the main thoroughfares, which had been largely cleared by plows, the rigs would get as close as possible to the caller's location. From there, the snowmobiles led the way down snow-clogged residential streets.
"We were glad to have them," said Rosado. "Conditions on the side streets were usually so bad that only something on skis could make it through."
A team of firefighters and paramedics waded through the snow on foot, meeting the snowmobile operator at the front of the residence. Some patients were able to ride out on the back of the two-seaters, but those who couldn't were strapped into a Stokes basket and towed out to a waiting ambulance.
According to Rosado, the teams responded to almost every type of call, from the routine to the urgent. "They had carbon monoxide runs and invalid assists, just like any other day," he said.
But the snowmobiles also helped save minutes when those minutes counted. "They transported several heart attack victims and mothers giving birth," Rosado said. "And they helped rescue motorists stranded on Lake Shore Drive."
On a night of potential chaos, when the outcome could have been much worse, there were no serious injuries and apparently the only death was that of a man who wandered over to Lake Michigan and drowned.
Rosado had nothing but compliments for the firefighters and paramedics. "Our guys gave 100 percent," he said. "They were out there in the worst of it. They ran all day and night."
Besides being used for EMS, the snowmobiles were available for firefighting operations. Luckily, few fires were reported during the storm itself, and, of those that were, none required a snowmobile intervention. However, had there been a need, the vehicles could have brought speed and efficiency to what otherwise might have been a long, hard slog.
"They could have been used to lead out hose," Rosado pointed out. "And they could have hauled tools and other equipment to the fire building."
Tim McGrath retired in January after 14 years with the Chicago Fire Department. Before joining the department, he worked in the laser industry as a technical writer. He has a degree in philosophy from Tulane University.