The Heat Is On….
Billy D Hayes
FDSOA SafetyGram Editor
As we find ourselves entering the hot “dog” days of summer, it is imperative that attention be given to the prevention, response, and recovery from heat related emergencies to our firefighters and first responders. While it is incumbent upon us individually to take precautions, and to recognize signs and symptoms, it should also be in the minds of company officers, chief officers, and certainly safety officers, to pay attention on emergency and training scenes.
Temperatures on hot/warm days, in conjunction with the use of personal protective equipment (PPE), and exertion from activities can pose serious dangers to firefighters. Heat related illnesses and/or injuries can easily occur if not monitored accordingly. Heat cramps, heat exhaustion, and heat stroke are among the most common occurrences.
The National Fire Protection Association’s (NFPA) Standard 1584: Standard on the Rehabilitation Process for Members During Emergency Operations and Training Exercises, outlines steps to be taken to prevent heat stress emergencies and rehabilitating members on the scene. Regardless of the size of the department, measures should be in place and planned to take care of our members. Even for smaller departments, collaboration with partnering agencies should be sought out.
Unfortunately, NFPA 1584 is often not followed in detail like many of the other standards that have been published. The reasons are plenty, “we’ve always done it this way,” “rehab is for wimps,” and/or “we don’t have the personnel or resources.” In some cases, there are valid reasons and not just excuses. The “we’ve always done it this way” can truly mean that due to lack of resources, past practice, and/or training, departments have never experienced how to properly or effectively implement the standard. However, there are some simple steps that individuals, and/or under the guidance of a safety officer, can be taken to prevent heat related emergencies:
- Establish SOP’s in relation to NFPA 1584 that outline measures to be taken for rehabilitation of members operating at emergency incidents and/or training exercises.
- Pay attention in advance to climate conditions that you or members of your organization may face.
- Proper hydration to maintain fluid balance. Drink until you are never thirsty!
- Proper nutrition that will provide the body the energy to operate under stressful conditions.
- Exercise regularly in controlled environments and in gradually build to become acclimated to more intense conditions.
- Take frequent breaks out of the elements if possible, and as necessary.
- Wear loose fit clothing when possible, and remove PPE as safety allows for the body to cool.
- If you don’t feel well, say something. If you see someone who may be suffering from a heat related emergency, and/or acting in a way that may place them in danger, say something.
Included in the SOP’s, and with the importance of collaboration, is the presence of EMS on-scene for rehab purposes. While some departments can provide that with their own respective resources, most rely on outside agencies who may provide transport services within that community. While the list above is essential in preventing emergencies, should an individual begin experiencing signs and symptoms, monitoring of heart rates, oxygen, as well as carbon monoxide, levels should be recorded for baselines.
It’s a known fact that the most common cause of firefighter line-of-duty-deaths is related to cardio-vascular events. Overexertion, whether through climate exposure and/or work performed, is a risk that is associated with our line of work. However, we can be proactive as individuals to reduce this risk to ourselves.
A final factor to determine with climate related conditions, especially in the heat, is the mental effect. As temperatures rise, the effect on the human body is not just stress, but mental stress from exertion can develop which causes members to become less sensitive and aware of their actions. Mistakes can be made which can jeopardize the safety of multiple individuals.
Safety officers should as well consider climate conditions as a part of their safety plan. Encourage members to take preventative actions as described above. Monitor the actions and behaviors of members, and the conditions on scene, and follow established SOP’s (or common sense) to have resources in place for effective rehab. The safety officer should not only be the eyes of unsafe conditions, you need to be the thermometer as well!
- Over-exertion in extreme climate conditions is a higher risk factor for a cardiac event during and/or after and emergency or training.
- Hydration, nutrition, exercise!
- Don’t dismiss how you feel, or someone else feels for the safe of safety.
- Establish SOP’s that correlate to NFPA 1584
Billy D. Hayes serves as the Fire Chief for the City of Onalaska, WI, and has previously served as the Fire Marshal for the University of South Alabama, Vice President of University Relations for Columbia Southern University, the Director of Community Affairs for the District of Columbia Fire and EMS Department, and as the Fire Chief and Emergency Management Coordinator for the City of Riverdale, GA. He is a graduate of Georgia Military College and Columbia Southern University, the National Fire Academy’s Executive Fire Officer Program, and has a Certificate in Local Government Management from the University of Georgia. He is a Past-President of the Metro Atlanta Fire Chiefs Association and Past-Chairman of the Board for the Georgia Firefighters Burn Foundation. Hayes is a published author and speaker on fire and life safety, officer development and leadership.