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Firefighter safety during extreme hot weather – Part 1

A department must have a policy in place for determining when it is too hot to safely train

Be sure to also check Perry’s second article in this series, “Firefighter safety during extreme hot weather – Part 2.”

I recently learned about a potentially serious incident that occurred in a combination fire department this past summer. Lacking written policy and NFPA compliance, members were faced with a struggle to get the proper change to occur. The issue centered on whether firefighters should be out training during times of excessive heat.

Fortunately there were no serious injuries or illnesses in this particular instance and corrective actions have since been implemented. The membership worked with their local firefighters association and department command staff to resolve the issue.

This clearly highlights the need for all departments to review their SOPs and SOGs on firefighter rehabilitation during times of extreme environmental stress.

When it comes to excessive outdoor temperatures, is it worth a firefighter losing his or her life from heat stroke just to make sure a training evolution is completed? At what point does learning stop and the firefighter’s body enters into survival mode?

Background was shared with me on this particular situation, and I was asked to assist in providing rehab at a later training exercise.

The initial incident took place last August when the city fire department acquired several houses scheduled for demolishment in order to conduct training evolutions. Beforehand, the houses were prepared for the training to eliminate any safety hazards.

The department then had about a month to conduct all sorts of training exercises from ladder evolutions to search and rescue, and eventually a live fire training day and burn down at the end of the period. However, Mother Nature threw a spanner into the works and there was span where daily temperatures reached nearly 100 degrees for about three of the weeks.

Frequent discussions

Crews were attending the training, sometimes during the hottest part of the day. Department members had frequent discussions about the apparent lack of a general sense of safety. Most importantly was the fact that many members of the department probably weren’t fit for the training in these conditions and shouldn’t have been there.

Despite their concerns, the training continued and it was decided by administration that the infrequence of getting an actual house to train in warranted the department training even in the hottest of conditions.

But on one particular morning — when both the temperature and humidity were high — two firefighters suffered problems during search and rescue evolutions. One of the firefighters went down inside the training house because of exhaustion while a later evolution was stopped when a firefighter had to be assisted out of the training house with chest pain and trouble breathing, and was transported to the hospital.

At this point, the union president decided action needed to be taken and the administration needed to listen to concerns.
The impromptu meeting called by the safety committee conducted research on the topic and found many other fire departments did have policies on heat-related training.

The union president met with the fire chief regarding their findings hoping that they would come to some sort of agreement on how they could increase the level of safety during the training.

Several recommendations came out of the meeting and are relevant to any department that finds itself in a similar scenario. They included stopping training at a certain level of humiture and improving rehab policies and procedures.

Furthermore, it was discussed how their overall fitness for duty level would be established as the temperatures during training magnified the poor levels of fitness in some of the firefighters. The department and firefighters group agreed on the monitoring of humiture to regulate training sessions, which focuses on the combination of dry temperature with the percent of relative humidity.

When the temperature is high and the relative humidity is low, it does not feel as hot outside. Conversely, when the temperature and humidity are high, the stressful effects on the body are magnified. It was determined by the department to suspend all training once the humiture reached 105.

However, if the training or scheduled activities are strenuous, the limiting number will be 95. NFPA 1403 was specifically examined to direct their training activities during extreme heat conditions.

NFPA 1403 gives specific direction to have policies on when to cease training during extreme heat conditions. While it does not give a specific number as a recommendation on when to stop the outdoor activity, it does require that a department have a policy regarding the issue.

In next month’s column, I’ll review how the department discussed in this article addressed rehab at its emergency scenes and training exercises and how it can relate to other departments.

Perry Denehy, a 20-year member of the fire-EMS community, writes ‘The Rehab Sector,’ a FireRescue1 exclusive column that will help you learn how to prepare for rehabilitation at every type of fire scene.