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Importance of prehydration for firefighters stressed

Preparing to go out in the heat is critical, regardless of whether or not you end up inside a structure fire

By Ann Williamson
Topeka Capital-Journal

TOPEKA, Kan. — Different water cups line the breakfast table at Topeka Fire Station 3, 318 S.E. Jefferson. Each one is a little bit bigger than the last, until finally a pitcher is placed in front of a plate.

This pitcher isn’t for the entire table but for one firefighter that is trying to keep his fluid level up — or prehydrating, as they have taken to calling it.

According to the firefighters at the station, it is what they do all day: drink water and be prepared to go out in the heat.

“We just hydrate and drink lots fluids and start early with it,” Capt. Chris Herrera said. “You can see the big glasses on the table, and the guys just sit around and drink water. With the heat, your body gets used to it after a while. You get kind of acclimated to it.”

When a firefighter goes out on a call, they put on more than 80 pounds of gear plus carry their tools.

Putting on the gear can happen as many as eight to 10 times a day, according to Herrera.

Staying acclimated to the heat and being ready for anything is something that Fire Marshal Greg Moody says the Topeka Fire Department is good at.

“Our firefighters’ job is compared to that of an athlete,” Moody said. “You are going full bore to do what you do. There’s not a warmup time, and there’s not a cool-down time. You go as hard as you go for the given amount of time.”

Firefighters have a rehab trailer that includes air conditioning and misting fans. The shift commanders also rotate the crews faster through the fires than they might when the weather is cooler.

“That might mean shorter work periods and rotating the crews that they have had on the scene,” Moody said. “Calling in different companies and sending people back to the stations.”

In Jackson County, emergency crews have started accompanying firefighters on every call, a procedure that already is followed in Topeka.

Previously they were only sent out for structure fires, according to J.J. Cashier, the Jackson County EMS assistant director.

“It is over 100 degrees and so dry, and we’ve had to help them rehab at big fires,” Cashier said. “We have lots of land in CRP (Conservation Reserve Program), and there is lots of tall grasses - and chances of big fires are greater. It was getting to the point where our firefighters were struggling to stay hydrated.”

The EMS team now dispatches with coolers of ice and water, along with cut-up towels that soak in the ice water to be placed on the firefighters’ necks to keep them cool.

“It’s the best way that we can thank the people,” Cashier said. “They go on every medical call for us, and they first respond to everything for us.”

Earlier this week, Cashier asked for donations of water and old towels that could be used for relief for the firefighters and was surprised by the outpouring of support by the community.

“We’ve had a tremendous response, and it has been fantastic,” Cashier said. “We are going to exceed what we needed as a resource. Our community is awesome.”

The city of Topeka street maintenance department has changed their schedule to be more comfortable in the heat. They have gone to a summer hour schedule that consists of working from 6 a.m. to 2 p.m., according to evaluation and planning manager Carlos Salazar.

The department has reminded the crews to prehydrate and hydrate as much as possible. Gatorade also is provided to the crews.

“We’ve asked them to keep themselves aware of what heat exhaustion consists of and have each employee to keep an eye on each other and to watch for symptoms of dehydration,” Salazar said. “The other employee needs to say you need to sit down for a little bit and get some water in you and get into a cool environment just so they won’t faint.”

The crews have taken to eating lighter meals while eating on the go so they get done with their work faster, and there hasn’t been any decrease in production, Salazar said.

“The pavement temperature could reach as high as 130, 150 degrees. That, combined with the heat coming off the heavy equipment, can cause an employee to get heat exhaustion right away,” Salazar said. “They put sun shades on the machines to provide shade for the operators. The crews know that there are projects that we need to get done, and they know how important it is to get those projects done so they push themselves to complete those projects on time.”

Copyright 2012 The Topeka Capital-Journal