BY RAUL A. ANGULO
The other day I got a new pair of leather bunker boots. The boots came with a huge red Encyclopedia Britannica-sized, red FEMSA (Fire and Emergency Manufacturers and Services Association) “Official User Information Guide,” required by law to be attached to all safety attire. Have you ever read through that safety booklet before donning your equipment? I had not, but this time I felt responsible as a captain for knowing what was within those pages for my safety and that of my crew.
The front cover starts with “DANGER! Do not use your protective ensemble elements until you have read AND understood all labels on your protective elements and this ‘Official User Information Guide.’ ” It continues as follows:
“Review this guide on a regular basis.
“Do not use your protective ensemble until you have been thoroughly trained … in firefighting tactics, safety procedures, and proper use of your protective ensemble.
“Firefighting is an ultra hazardous, unavoidably dangerous activity. To reduce your risk of death, burns, injuries, disease, and illnesses, you must carefully read and strictly follow this entire ‘Official User Information Guide’ and all labels on your protective ensemble.
“You can reduce (but not eliminate) your risk of death, burns, injuries, disease, and illness through the following ….
“Exercise extreme caution at all times. Your protective ensemble will not make you completely safe from death, burns, injuries, diseases, or illness.”
Holy moly! All I wanted to do was put on my boots! But FEMSA takes its safety messages seriously and the “Official User Information Guide” does have a lot of valuable safety information. One section that caught my attention addressed heat stress.
“Heat stress is an increase in human body temperature and metabolism caused by physical exertion and/or a heated environment which can lead to exhaustion, mental confusion, disorientation, dehydration, loss of consciousness, heart attack, stroke, and other fatal illnesses. Exerting yourself while wearing equipment such as protective ensemble (boots etc.) may increase your level of heat stress. Performing strenuous tasks in the heated environment of a fire scene or in warm and/or humid weather may also increase your heat stress. Heat stress is a leading cause of death and a cause of serious illness and injury among firefighters.”
This is in addition to the stress you bring to the job before you enter a burning building. According to the June 22, 2003, Seattle Times, the Jobs Rated Almanac ranked firefighter second in a list of the most stressful jobs. The list is as follows:
1. President of the United States
3. Corporate executive
4. Race car driver (Indy class)
5. Taxi driver
8. Police officer
9. Football player (NFL)
10. Airplane pilot
11. Air traffic controller
12. Highway patrol officer
In firefighting, it may be extremely difficult to prevent heat stress, considering all the factors present at any given alarm. We cannot control hot weather and high humidity. So how do we train to combat heat stress? We usually treat heat stress, not train for it. But can we?
Realistic training is always the most effective. We can simulate smoke conditions and train in vacant buildings, but heat is hard to create without live fire; and logistically, it’s not something we can do every day. Experience is the only training I can think of for heat stress. Many of us know what a “hot” fire feels like because the physical pain has been seared in our minds forever. We have a reference point of what “hot” is. However, with the advent of hoods and improved bunker gear, that reference point may again be blurred because we no longer can “feel” the heat because of encapsulated protection.
On the other hand, many firefighters have never been in a “hot” fire. They have never hit a fire with water in an enclosed space and felt the blanket of steam envelop them and knock them to the floor. I remember a motel fire I responded to with a rookie. He did a good job of knocking down the fire, but he got a little nervous when he felt the steam blanket descend on us. “Hey! It’s getting hot in here!” I knew there was nothing else to burn in the room and that the steam would be dissipating shortly with ventilation. But the rookie was listening to his physical senses warning that the outside environment was rapidly changing and becoming hostile and intolerable.
Training for heat stress is a mental exercise. It’s practice and discipline to consciously tolerate heat, much like practicing to hold your breath under water. The more you practice and physically concentrate, the longer you can stay under water. Obviously, you’ll reach a point where your body can no longer tolerate the hypoxia and you’ll have to surface to breathe. I practice holding my breath while swimming to train for free-dive water rescues. I also practice free diving with my eyes closed to get a sense of depth with zero visibility. It was during these “personal best” drills that I got the idea to train for heat stress in the sauna and steam room.
Many firefighters have access to health clubs and have spent time in the whirlpool baths, saunas, and steam rooms after a workout. There’s usually a group of people socializing. When they find out I’m a firefighter, they inevitably ask, “What’s it like in a fire?” I answer that it’s a lot like being in the sauna. “The heat of a sauna is similar to that of a room that’s on fire.” But every conversation ends with someone saying, “That’s enough for me! I’m out of here!” and they bail out the door. The tolerance level for heat varies with each individual. The sauna’s exit is only a couple of steps away. In a real fire, escape is not so easy, especially if you’re lost or trapped. You may just have to take the heat until help arrives.
I started timing myself to see what my physical limitations were. The steam room thermometer read about 120° F. I could stay about five minutes before becoming uncomfortable.
The sauna was more challenging. The thermometer read between 170°F and 180°F! That seemed high, but that’s what it read. I could barely stay in five minutes. Each time I’d go in with the mental fortitude to stay just one minute more. Have you ever tried to stay an extra 60 seconds when you’re ready to bail out of a sauna? It’s excruciating and seems more like 60 minutes. You close your eyes; take deep, slow breaths; and wait. Then you try to mentally focus on something else besides the heat, and you check your watch, only to find that it’s only been 28 seconds. With practice, concentration, and physical relaxation, I’ve worked up to 15 minutes in a steam room and about 10 minutes in a sauna.
This practice is not scientifically or medically endorsed. In fact, since heart attack is the No. 1 cause of line-of-duty deaths, your physician probably wouldn’t recommend this practice. But the doctor isn’t going to be the one trapped or lost in a fire. I realize there is no such thing as “acclimating” to a structure fire. The real purpose of this exercise is to provide an uncomfortable environment to start training your mind to relax and adjust to prolong exposure to heat, not to outlast everyone in the sauna. It’s a method for identifying your physical limitations. Use common sense, and be self-limiting on how far you want to push yourself. Trust me, when it’s time to bail, you will. After that, take a shower, or enter the pool to cool off.
I know some of you may be rolling your eyes about this topic. It doesn’t take into account the effects of radiant heat or replenishing intracellular, extracellular, and intravascular sodium, potassium, and other electrolytes necessary for thinking clearly and maintaining your strength and agility. But who has the ability to take in fluid and electrolyte replacement when they’re calling a Mayday? As I said before, I have never heard of training for heat stress. So if you have a better idea, I’m all ears.
Here’s the bottom line: PREhydration and maintaining hydration are the best ways to avoid heat stress. But this is a prefire strategy. Putting the fire out is the next best way to avoid heat stress. If you begin to feel the effects of heat stress, grab your buddy and get out! However, if you fall through a roof or a floor and become trapped or pinned such that you cannot extricate yourself, you will suddenly be exposed to an extremely heated and physically hostile environment. If conditions are within the rating of your bunker gear and PPE, the chances for survival are good provided you don’t panic. Once you panic, you lose the ability to think rationally and rely on your training.
Whether it’s holding your breath or staying in the sauna, you have to find ways to mentally adjust to a rapidly changing environment. Remaining calm is critical to your survivability, but it’s hard to train for. Saunas and steam rooms are relatively safe ways to stress your body, improve your mental ability for heat tolerance, and identify your personal limitations in taking the heat.
RAUL A. ANGULO is a 24-year veteran of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department and captain of Engine Company 33. He has written articles on company officer development and leadership, fireground accountability, and strategy and tactics. He is an FDIC instructor and a member of the FDIC Advisory Board and the Board of Directors for Fellowship of Christian Firefighters International.