Recently, a Wal-Mart Supercenter near me erupted in flames from the roof after some workers inadvertently ignited some material. It was before lunchtime, the place was packed with shoppers, and the temperatures outside were already soaring. My phone’s weather app said it was 96 degrees out, and not even noon yet. The heat index, though, the “what it really feels like outside” measurement was topping out at 106 degrees.
I had been off duty and coming out of a nearby store when I saw the fire, so I pulled into the lot (safely away from the arriving apparatus) and watched for a bit. This was going to be a bad one. It went to a multi-alarm assignment almost immediately, and calls for mutual aid went out within minutes.
When you watch a big incident from afar, the FD companies are very organized in the middle of this chaos – which is their job – and they follow the ICS system; everyone, bunkers up, hunkers down and gets it done. But that day I watched with a different perspective, as the heat index was climbing. So my eyes were on the rehab sector, where a little armada of “ambu-busses” (medical ambulance busses equipped to hold multiple patients) and paramedics had an orderly set up of cooling chairs, assessment stations and hydration stations, waiting for customers.
And Command began sending those crews through rehab earlier and more frequently, given the high temperatures and the situation in the building. Still, four fire fighters were transported by ambulance that afternoon due to heat-related illnesses. (They were discharged that night).
They did everything right, but what can we do better? And what can individual crew members do to prepare for these hot days? Here on the west coast of Florida, in the Tampa Bay area, to see a heat index of 118 degrees in an inland county is not a stretch in July and August. And let’s face it: police, fire and EMS do not have normal jobs. It’s shift work, sometimes under very poor conditions, they are outside most of the time and it is physically and mentally grueling.
The key is hydration. But when, how and how much? After visiting some stations, talking to some ambulance crews at length and catching police officers between calls for service, I got some pretty interesting tips on how to keep the body from breaking down under the ridiculous Florida sun.
And while the tips vary depending on which agency you work for and what your job is, the one resounding theme is this: Hydration needs to start the day before your shift. And staying hydrated involves more than just oral intake.
Just like you prepare your uniform and your personal safety gear, prepare your body as well:
- Make certain you ingest a gallon of water – or a fifty/fifty ratio of water to an electrolyte replacement drink mix like Gatorade or Powerade – throughout the day.
- Limit soda intake.
- Limit your alcohol intake. Yes, some of us imbibe on our off days, but the day before your shift, drink alcohol sparingly.
- Watch the caffeine the day before your shift. That may be a tough one to get a handle on, since those of us who put a badge on tend to have a perpetual coffee cup in one hand.
- Limit sun exposure.
- Limit strenuous activity.
- Moisturize after showering/bathing. Using a water or gel-based, light moisturizer can help your skin grab and hold water from the air. Hey, it’s the largest organ you have. Make it work for you.
Of course, keep an eye on the weather reports. We in the police, EMS and fire service professions are great at planning for the unplanned events and big incidents. And a little planning for days when those heat index numbers are going to be triple digits before lunchtime is just as necessary.
System status management EMS units and law enforcement officers on patrol stress the importance of keeping a small, personal cooler in the cab, and have a couple of hand towels soaking in the ice with their drinks. Whether the incident you’re wrapping up is routine or not, cooling off with an iced towel to the back of your neck afterwards helps to keep things tolerable. Park your unit in the shade when you can; keep your vehicle running and the A/C on as much as possible.
To hydrate during your shift, especially in a high-impact system where you are outside frequently and constantly sweating, make sure to drink about ½ to an ounce per pound of body weight per day of water and electrolyte replacement mix. Watch the caffeinated drinks, the soda and energy drinks you have throughout your shift. Eat smaller, lighter meals; tamp down on those heavy-sugared snacks. Try some cold fruit or a couple of popsicles instead.
If your agency allows, try wearing a moisture-wicking synthetic compression-type garment under your uniform – like Dri Fit or Under Armour – versus all-cotton tee shirts. They are designed to keep you cooler and shift moisture away from your skin.
And as always, watch each other. Some signs of heat related illness are nausea, dizziness, headache, thirst and weakness; they can creep up on you, go unnoticed and be blamed on other things. Stay vigilant, stay cool and be safe out there!
Disclaimer: The content in this article is the opinion of the writer and does not necessarily reflect the policies or opinions of US Patriot Tactical.
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