The season of Fall is upon us. Normally one would think cooler weather, blustery winds, and falling leaves. However, this is California and with its arid climate comes the potential of severe fire conditions, high temperatures and humidity levels, and the increase risk of falling prey to one of two heat related illnesses: heat exhaustion and heat stroke! No one is more susceptible to these conditions than firefighters. Working outside while in turnouts in extreme heat and other weather conditions increases the chance of overheating.
To begin with, we must first understand the difference between the two conditions. Heat Exhaustion is a condition caused by being exposed to elevated temperatures for an extended period of time. This state is worsened while dehydrated and has symptoms like nausea, headache, vomiting, dizziness, muscle cramps, paleness, weakness, fainting, fatigue, and excessive sweating. The skin is moist and cool. If heat exhaustion is not treated, it can manifest into the next condition—Heat stroke.
Heat stroke develops when the cooling mechanism of the body is overwhelmed, causing unusually high body temperature that includes physical and neurological symptoms. Compared to heat exhaustion, heat stroke is a real medical emergency that may be fatal if not attended to or treated. Signs and symptoms of this condition arehigh body temperatures, the inability to sweat, accompanied by flushed, dry skin, fast or rapid heart rate, difficulty breathing, confusion or the ability to concentrate, anxiety or agitation, or even seizures. If left untreated, this condition can rapidly develop into unconsciousness or worse—death.
Physical conditioning of our members also plays a huge factor in whether or not a person will suffer from a heat-related illness. Firefighters with a high BMI, high blood pressure, thyroid disease, or diabetes are certainly at higher risk but all members are suspectable to the conditions. The more risk factors one has, the less exertion and less heat it takes to develop too.
A hot day doesn’t guarantee you’ll suffer from a heat-related illness, but the closer the outside temperatures gets to your body’s own temperature, the higher the risk becomes. So, how can we prevent these dangerous conditions from developing in the first place. One way is to start living a healthier lifestyle. By keeping your BMI with in proper ranges, we not only reduce our chances of overheating, but we also stay off the chances of developing the other physical ailments that can exacerbate heat related illnesses. Another way to help prevent overheating is by wearing the proper clothing while engaged in physical activities. In recent years, the Department has done a great job in recognizing that the uniforms and protective equipment we don plays a major role in our protection and performance on the fire ground. In-turn, they have issued lighter but still effective PPE’s, especially in the area of brush firefighting.
Hydration plays a major role in our body’s ability to maintain a healthy body temperature. Drinking enough fluids must begin early in the day though. On a hot day, the recommended eight cups a water a day may not be enough. One way to know if you are hydrated is by monitoring your urine output. It should be clear, with slight to no color and frequent. Blood in the urine is a danger sign of organ failure and must be addressed immediately. The last line of defense is each other. Captains should be monitoring their crew continuously, keeping a close watch out for any of the above conditions. Rotating of personal must be accomplish too so as to not overwhelm any one member or crew. Heat related illnesses are a serious threat to the health of our firefighters. The good news is that these conditions are easily prevented if recognized and treated early. Knowing the warning signs and practicing common sense is the key to prevention. If you come across another member exhibiting any of these signs and symptoms, have them stop whatever activity they’re doing, and assist them in cooling off. Sit them in the shade, in front of a fan, or even spray them with a hose line. The key is cooling them down as rapidly as possible. Stay hydrated and stay safe.
By John Hicks