By Dawn Vail
Loss Control Safety Specialist
Emergency Services Insurance Program
The spring weather is finally here bringing with it sunny skies and warmer temperatures. Most of people look forward to shedding winter coats and gloves, but for those of us in emergency services, donning personal protective equipment is still a necessity whether it is the dead of winter or the hazy, hot, and humid days of summer. Heat exhaustion and heat stroke are a common concern for firefighters and emergency service personnel and should be taken very seriously. This article will serve to remind you of the signs and symptoms associated with heat related illnesses and what your organization can do to protect each other from its consequences.
Heat exhaustion is a result of core body temperatures rising above 100°F and often occurs when people exercise in a hot, humid place. Body fluids are lost through sweating and the body overheats. Heat stroke is life-threatening. Once the core body temperature has reached approximately 104°F, the persons cooling system begins to shut down. This is a medical emergency that requires immediate attention. The key is to recognize the signs and symptoms early so that interventions may be implemented.
Whether at fire training or an actual fire, firefighters run the risk of overheating. Identification of the signs and symptoms is the first step in preventing a medical emergency. The signs and symptoms of heat exhaustion and heat stroke are listed below:
SIGNS & SYMPTOMS
Heat Exhaustion Heat Stroke
Pale, cool, moist skin Flushed, hot, DRY skin
Excessive sweating Sweat decreases or stops
Muscle Cramps or Pain May hyperventilate
Headache, thirst, weakness, nausea Dizziness, confusion, hallucinations, or coma
Increased pulse rate Elevated blood pressure – will eventually drop
When working during the dog days of summer, always keep an abundance of fluids available for personnel and DRINK THEM! The rule of thumb is to drink water if you will be working for an hour or less and a sports drink to replace electrolytes if you will be working for greater than one hour. Limit the amount of time that personnel may be actively working in full PPE and require a minimum time of recovery and rehabilitation prior to re-entering the working environment. Have medical personnel available to assess personnel regularly and create an environment where someone can be rapidly cooled if necessary – an air conditioned ambulance or rescue truck is a great cooling environment that can be utilized. And whenever possible and safe to do so, shed the turnout gear and allow the body to cool itself.
Firefighters and emergency personnel face hazardous conditions everyday and the job must be done in extreme conditions regardless of the weather forecast. Take the time to watch each other for the signs and symptoms of heat related illnesses, rehydrate continuously, and cool down frequently.