Firefighter safety during extreme hot weather – Part 2

Here's a look at nine process NFPA calls for and what one department did to protect its firefighters

Be sure to also check Perry's first article in this series, "Firefighter safety during extreme hot weather – Part 1.

Firefighting operations during hot weather conditions can be very hazardous to personnel. Departments must have a multifold approach to effectively minimize this risk to their people, and must continuously remember the dangers associated with the heat.

All departments should ensure firefighters are in physically good shape and ready to perform their duties. Simply put, departments should have policies in place limiting outdoor activities during non-emergency activities.

In my previous article, I discussed a potentially serious condition involving firefighter safety while doing live-fire training during extremely hot and humid weather at a suburban fire department. On one particular morning — when both the temperature and humidity were high — two firefighters suffered problems during search and rescue evolutions.

As a result, the fire department's professional association's president contacted me for some direction in the matter and the department administration immediately began to investigate the situation. Although the two firefighters were transported to a local hospital for medical evaluation, they were both treated and released.

Since then, extensive efforts have been taken by their organization to maximize the safety of emergency personnel. I compliment their dedication and willingness to make the necessary changes. As with anything, change is sometimes difficult to be accepted.

Initially, the fire union president met with the fire administrative staff expressing his concern for firefighter safety when training in extreme hot weather. Research was then carried out into other departments' policies and guidelines.

In addition, the chief reviewed NFPA 1403 Standard on Live Fire Training Evolutions, which gives specific direction on when to cease training during extreme heat conditions. The NFPA does not give a specific number as a recommendation on when to stop the outdoor activity, but it does require that a department have a policy in place regarding the issue.

When discussing the matter, the department ruled that there are times when firefighters must go out into the heat to perform various duties. After all, the runs still come in even when it is 100 degrees outside. Their solution was to keep their people safe by incorporating rehabilitation policies that were proactive and aggressive.

There are many ways that the responder rehab component of the emergency services is viewed. Some departments see it as a place for the old squad folks to go to and wait until the firefighters come to take a break.

Others view it as a medical issue, for vital signs to be monitored and the continuance of duties for people who are not within acceptable levels prohibited. As for the department focused on in this article, it admitted that rehab was not being done very well. People were ignoring the necessity for it.

Then, the union president observed proper rehab processes being utilized at live-fire training at a national seminar. Despite high heat and humidity, there were only minimal occurrences of firefighter heat illness. Steps they took included:

  • Designated medical personnel with a transport unit were on site throughout the training evolutions.
  • Electrolyte sports drinks and bottled water was readily available.
  • Shaded areas had been created with tents.
  • Limb immersion chairs were set up under the tents along with cool towels.
  • Safety officers were continuously monitoring the temperature and relative humidity.

In fact, the entire training exercise was close to being suspended until a fast-moving storm front lowered the ambient temperature along with cloud cover.

All of this highlighted the need for an aggressive and proactive rehab component to the command structure. There is no excuse for a department to not take the above recommendations to help promote the safety of their personnel.

But efforts are continuing in this area of firefighter survivability and it is encouraging to see many departments adequately preparing for these changes.

With 1584 Standard on the Rehabilitation Process for Members During Emergency Operations and Training Exercises now effective, it can only help the rehab process in departments.

Under the standard, the following nine processes are required:

  • Relief from climatic conditions.
  • Rest and recovery.
  • Cooling or re-warming.
  • Re-hydration.
  • Calorie and electrolyte replacement. 
  • Medical monitoring.
  • EMS treatment in accordance with local protocol.
  • Member accountability.
  • Release from rehab.

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