With summer upon us, fire service members must now contend with additional demands due to extreme summer conditions, from high temperatures and humidity levels to more people on the streets during a response. Firefighters can overcome these hazards and complications by understanding and properly preparing for them beforehand.
Roadway and Construction Hazards
Summer marks the peak of road construction season in most of the U.S. Are your crews familiar with what roadway projects are taking place and where? How will response times to areas be affected and do crews have alternative routes to take to these areas? How are homes/businesses in the construction zone to be accessed if the fire department is called? Extreme caution will need to be exercised if forced to respond through a construction area to avoid workers as well providing extra focus as speed limits are reduced and many motorists’ behavior becomes unpredictable due to the lack of options to get over to the right side of the roadway.
Areas that are affected by construction should also be monitored for the availability of water supplies. Many times these projects may involve water service to be shut off or upgraded while the street is torn up.
Something often forgotten is that summertime signifies the end of the school year, which presents the possibility for neighborhoods to be filled with children who are outside playing. The curiosity sparked by sirens and apparatus responding in a neighborhood can lead to disaster if caution is not exercised.
Firefighters should perform intensive driver training and be thoroughly familiar with all aspects of the apparatus they operate. Remember: The fire department is of no value if it doesn’t arrive on scene safely.
Once on scene, the company officer must make critical decisions on tactics and strategy. How long will that first-in crew have to operate on their own before additional companies arrive? Where is the closest available water supply? Is that supply adequate due to the additional demands being placed on it during the summer (especially in cases where water is supplied from one source to several communities or when it is known that residents open hydrants to cool off or play in)?
How do prevailing weather conditions affect what actions will be taken? Do dry, windy conditions present a concern for exposure problems as well as fire extension? It is also important to remember that smoke conditions will be different than what is experienced in cooler weather. Smoke rises until air on the outside of a structure cools it down. With higher ambient temperatures and humidity as experienced in the summer, smoke as well as embers will rise higher and faster into the atmosphere keeping tighter shape as it rises. Not knowing this information can cause fire officers to make mistakes in predicting fire behavior as well as location.
Most important during extreme summer weather is that we monitor our personnel and make certain that they operate in a safe manner.
Make certain that personnel don’t take “short cuts” with personnel protective equipment (PPE) in an attempt to stay cool. Call for extra alarms and resources sooner rather than later – summertime heat will cause us to use a larger number of firefighters in a shorter time span. Remember, help can always be returned if not needed. Wearing turnout gear for an extended time in extreme summer weather will reduce the body’s ability to cool itself by the evaporation of perspiration. For this reason, make certain that crews remove turnout gear when they come outside the hazard zone and allow their bodies to cool down prior to being released from rehab.
The importance of rehab can not be stressed enough when it comes to extreme summer firefighting. Even the smallest incidents should require a rehab to be set up for firefighters if they are working for any extended period of time. When faced with environmental heat stress, the body can lose up to three liters of water per hour through sweating. A good portion of that sweat is made up of sodium chloride. When the body has a shortage of sodium chloride, problems begin to occur.
This shortage will be first noticed with muscle cramping, which will normally begin with the muscles that are being used the most at the time. Management of muscle cramping is easily managed with the replacement of sodium and water through items such as sports drinks. Severe cramping may require the administration of an IV to replace the needed electrolytes.
Heat exhaustion is more severe than cramping and is also caused by an electrolyte imbalance. The firefighter suffering from heat exhaustion will exhibit profuse sweating, nausea, dizziness, headaches and a body temperature below 103 degrees. Removal from the environment into a cooler one with the administration of fluids will often lead to a rapid recovery, but left untreated these conditions can lead to the more serious condition of heat stroke.
Heat stroke results in the total breakdown of all the body’s systems that regulate body temperature. Body temperature with heat stroke will be 105.8 degrees or higher and the once profuse sweating seen in heat exhaustion will stop, leaving hot, dry, flushed skin. Heat stroke is a serious medical emergency and needs to be treated immediately.
Rehab should include both passive and active measures to be most effective. Passive measures such as shade and fans for air movement should also be combined with measures such as chairs that allow hands and forearms to be soaked in ice water baths and misters.
The key to keeping firefighters safe during extreme summer conditions is hydration. Firefighters should be aggressively hydrating throughout the day prior to getting a call. Water is the most important item that should be consumed for hydration. Other liquids such as soda or juices have been shown to slow absorption into the body and can have a detrimental effect in these situations. It is recommended that firefighters consume at least 1 quart of water per hour when working. Fire apparatus should carry drinking water for its crew in case rehab resources are not on scene.
Just as for cold weather firefighting, firefighters should also prepare a personal kit to have with them in the summertime. Some items to be considered include: bottled water, sunscreen, lip balm, long sleeve t -shirts, hats with brims and safety glasses that are tinted.
Extreme summer weather can definitely take a toll on firefighters. However, proper preplanning, training and awareness can reduce the hazards of extreme summer weather firefighting to allow safe fireground operations.
By Jeffrey Pendelski