By Tom Warren
One of the most overlooked elements that affect firefighting operations and the health of firefighters themselves is the weather conditions we operate in. During my career I have operated at fires and other emergencies in extreme heat, high humidity, extreme cold, and icy conditions; during hurricanes, heavy rains, and flood conditions; in extremely windy conditions, thunder/lightning storms and on beautiful sunny days. My experiences are by far not uncommon to what most firefighters operate in as well. Our working environment is not at all similar to the creature comforts most people enjoy in their workplaces. We all know that when the call comes in we will respond and do whatever is necessary to mitigate the situation we find. It is important to remember that we take care of ourselves while we are out there doing our work. In part 1 of this series we will examine what firefighters can do to stay healthy and safe during the summertime.
The summer months bring the dangers of heat-related disorders that present serious issues for firefighters operating at fires and emergencies. Every firefighter should take some time and review the EMS protocols concerning heat-related disorders and be mindful of how to recognize the symptoms in themselves as well as their fellow firefighters. Once heat-related symptoms are recognized, treatment must be implemented quickly to avoid serious complications. Plan and train for heat related disorders before the summer heat and humidity sets in.
Hot weather triggers a variety of medical emergencies that can be exacerbated by high heat and humidity. Even healthy firefighters should take it easy during extremely high temperatures, and those with respiratory and other health problems must be especially careful. Stay out of the sun as much as possible. Drink extra fluids, but avoid alcoholic and caffeinated beverages as they may cause dehydration.
Some important ways for firefighters to prevent heat related disorders are as follows:
- Drink water or sports drinks before you become thirsty, and drink often.
- Eat a healthy diet.
- Wear a hat or cap, keep the neck covered, and wear loose-fitting clothing.
- If you are able, plan drills and outside training in the cool hours of the day or evening.
- Observe proper work/rest cycles and ensure rehab is instituted early at all fires and emergencies.
- Hydrate before, during, and after each shift (minimize coffee, tea, and cola products).
- Inform your officer immediately of any ill effects to heat.
- Every firefighter operating at emergencies must use the rehab sector at all firefighting and emergency activities; company officers and chief officers must ensure compliance.
- Remove all personal protective equipment during rehab.
- Request additional companies to allow for crew rotation.
- Set up a misting spray. I once saw a clever pump operator fashion a shower using the booster hose and a pike pole for firefighters to cool down during rehab.
- Use smoke ejectors to create a breeze.
- Employ the first company-in/first-company-out routine.
It's important to wear a hat because it prevents heat load by acting as a barrier from the heat source (usually the sun). Cooling the head and neck may be an effective means of reducing core body temperature in those with heat-related disorders.
Salt tablets or table salt are not recommended to replace body electrolytes. There are many electrolyte replacement drinks available on the market today. Electrolytes are crucial for the proper functioning of the body. Common electrolytes are:
Heat-related injuries fall into three major categories:
- Heat cramps
- Heat exhaustion
Heat cramps are muscular pains and spasms that occur when the body loses electrolytes during profuse sweating or when inadequate electrolytes are taken into the body. They usually begin in the arms, legs or abdomen, and often precede heat exhaustion. Treatment for heat cramps is to rest in the shade, get near a fan, spray a victim with water, and massage the cramp.
Heat exhaustion is a medical emergency. When a person is suffering from heat exhaustion, they will perspire profusely and most likely will be pale. It is best treated by taking the patient to a cool place, applying cool compresses, elevating the feet, and giving the patient fluids.
Heat stroke is the worst heat-related injury. In such instances the brain has lost its ability to regulate body temperature. The patient will be hot, reddish, and warm to the touch. Their temperature will be markedly high and there will be no perspiration. This is a true medical emergency. The emergency care for heat stroke is to cool the body as quickly as possible. One of the best methods for cooling the body during a heat related-emergency is to wrap the patient in cool, wet sheets.
Below is the National Weather Service Heat Index Chart, which illustrates the effects of heat on the human body. The heat index is the temperature that the body feels when heat and humidity are combined. The chart shows the heat index that corresponds to the actual air temperature and relative humidity. Firefighters should always be mindful of how quickly the effects of heat and humidity can impact them and fire officers, in particular, should remain vigilant for their crew's well-being.
When firefighters report for duty, they should always be thinking of the weather conditions that they will be subjected to for that shift and prepare accordingly. In the summer this may mean slowing down and keeping hydrated. Company officers and chief officers must never forget their responsibility to the firefighters under their command and to remain vigilant for their well-being at all times. Additionally it is the duty of every fire department to prepare their firefighters for extreme weather conditions such as tornadoes, blizzards, and hurricanes, through specific standard operating procedures. The weather will always be a factor when making decisions at fires or emergencies whether tactically or operationally, and most importantly for the well-being of our firefighters.
Sources: R.I Health Department, R.I. Pre Hospital Protocols, NOAA'S National Weather Service and WebMD
THOMAS N. WARREN has more than 40 years of experience in the fire service in both career and volunteer departments. He recently retired as assistant chief of department of the Providence (RI) Fire Department after 33 years of service. He has a bachelor's degree in fire science from Providence College, an associate degree in business administration from the Community College of Rhode Island, and a certificate in occupational safety and health from Roger Williams University.
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