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Fighting fires in hot weather takes a physical toll on firefighters, and can lead to heat stroke if proper precautions aren’t taken.
When the Minot Fire Department responded to a house fire in early July, crews dealt with the usual things at the scene of a fire: extinguishing the fire as quickly as possible, protecting nearby structures, and making sure no one was injured while battling the blaze.
They also had to contend with North Dakota’s typical July weather: temperature in the mid-80s, a bright sunny sky, little to no wind, and moderate humidity.
It all makes the task more complicated.
“You have to be aware of heat stroke and other issues, and the sun and humidity play a big part in that. You have to rehydrate and rehab yourself so you can continue to be effective,” said Assistant Fire Chief Lonnie Sather. “I don’t know how many cases of water we went through that day. There were two in the cooler and someone brought another one, and I sent someone to get three more cases.”
But the water wasn’t cold, Sather said.
“We don’t drink cold water when it’s hot out or when we’re potentially getting overheated. We want it to be room temperature, because drinking too much cold water can be a shock to your system in that situation,” he said.
On the scene of a fire, protecting firefighters from potential heat-related problems is the responsibility of leaders like Sather, Battalion Chief Gary Rasmussen, and others on scene. When crew members rotated out of the structure at the early July fire, they gathered in the shade to cool down by drinking water and removing their bulky jackets, helmets, and other gear.
“Our clothing is designed to keep water and heat out, but it also keeps water and heat in,” Sather said. “The sun is brutal this time of the year. You can feel it any day you’re outside. It’s vital to be prepared for that.”
As an additional precaution, an ambulance crew is always on the scene of a working fire in case anyone needs medical assistance, including firefighters.
Firefighter Jeremy Croxall said you learn quickly how to help yourself recover during hot weather.
“When you’re not in the actual fire, you need to remove your coat, sit down, and hydrate to help cool down,” he said. “You have to make sure you’re OK when it’s time to go back in. Other people are depending on you.”
Veteran firefighters like Rasmussen know that preparing for hot weather doesn’t start when you arrive on the scene of a fire.
“When you’re in the shower in the morning or getting ready for your shift, you should already be mentally preparing yourself for whatever the weather is going to be that day,” Rasmussen said. “If you know it’s going to be hot out, you start drinking water right away and you keep it up all day to make sure you’re hydrated if you have to respond to a fire.”
Sometimes, firefighters working on an adrenaline rush have to be reminded to maintain their own well-being, too.
“We all want to be heroes when we’re on scene and in the middle of fighting a fire,” said firefighter Casey Rostberg. “These guys do a great job of watching out for us and making sure we’re taking care of ourselves. They’re reminding us to sit down, take off our jackets, hydrate, and get some fresh air.”
Crew members keep an eye on each other at all times when they’re on scene, especially when they’re fighting a fire in adverse weather.
“If someone starts making mistakes, it might be because they’re dehydrated or something else related to the heat, so that’s something we watch for, too,” Rostberg said.
The discussion about hot weather brought back memories for Rasmussen.
“I’ve done it where I got overheated, and you feel absolutely terrible,” he said. “You don’t want to let yourself get to that point. It’s awful.”
Firefighters often train their bodies to deal with the rigors of working in hot weather, said Rostberg.
“We do our own workouts outside in full gear to help acclimate our bodies to what we’ll experience during a live fire,” he said. “The more prepared we can be, the better.”
Croxall said conducting exercises at the department’s training ground helps prepare crews, too, but nothing compares to the real thing.
“In the burn room at our training facility, we can control the temperature and the situation, but it’s not like a live fire,” he said. “The first time new firefighters experience the heat from a live fire can be a real eye-opener.”
Veterans like Sather and Rasmussen have worked in every weather condition imaginable during their decades as firefighters. Hot weather and cold conditions both present unique challenges, but Sather has a clear choice.
“I’d much rather fight a fire in the cold,” he said. “If you’ve been out fighting a fire when it’s hot, you’re exhausted – way more than when it’s cold. Your day is done and you need to rehab and rest.”