From the Chief's Corner

Hey, it's hot in here!
By Chief Sam DiGiovanna
Verdugo Fire Academy/Lexipol Consultant

On June 10, the temperature at the San Francisco airport reached triple digits — a new record not just for the month of June, but the highest temperature ever recorded in the city in June, July or August. Sacramento hit 103 degrees Fahrenheit; Modesto reached 106.

We're used to hot weather in California, and it's always possible this early heat event is just a fluke. But many climate scientists warn we need to be prepared for hotter summers and "extraordinary" heat waves. Last July was the hottest on record for California; we can probably expect more of the same this year.

Excessive heat is dangerous for everyone. Reported cases of heat stroke and heat exhaustion spike during summer heat waves. Hundreds die each year die to heat- and humidity-related incidents. For firefighters, the heat is even more dangerous — performing intense work while cloaked in heat-trapping PPE, often carrying heavy equipment, we feel the high temperatures much faster than the general public.

The danger isn't limited to the fireground. In 2016, NIOSH conducted a health hazard evaluation at a fire department that included outdoor physical training and live-fire suppression exercises in full protective gear. The evaluation revealed environmental conditions "often exceeded heat stress limits, and at some point during the evaluation week, many participants met the agency's criteria for excessive heat strain."

Fortunately, most heat-related illness is preventable, and when caught early, symptoms can be reversed through proper rehab and medical attention. Following are some guidelines to consider as your department gears up for the summer:
  • Educate your personnel about the risk of rhabdomyolysis. Although this word may seem foreign, most firefighters are familiar with "crush syndrome," when electrolytes and proteins flood the bloodstream following a crush injury, shutting down the heart and kidneys. Rhabdomyolysis is simply the breakdown of muscle tissue, and it can be caused by overheating and overexertion. Symptoms include muscle pain in the shoulders, thighs or lower back; muscle weakness or trouble moving arms and legs; dark red or brown urine or decreased urination; abdominal pain; nausea or vomiting; fever; rapid heart rate; and confusion or lack of consciousness.
  • Acclimate personnel to hot conditions. OSHA notes "failure to support acclimatization appears to be the most common deficiency for employers that have employees at-risk, and the factor most clearly associated with death." As first responders, we don't have the luxury of being able to slowly ramp up our activities in the heat — if a call comes in, we must respond. But fire service leaders can adjust training schedules to assist in acclimatization. During emergency incidents, incident commanders may need to increase work cycles and call for rehab early and often while firefighters are adjusting to seasonal temperature increases.
  • Monitor conditions and provide appropriate accommodations. Did you know California regulation 8 CCR 3395 requires employers to provide employees who are working outside with access to adequate shade and hydration when the temperature exceeds 80 degrees Fahrenheit? Whenever possible, locate rehab areas in the shade, use misters and fans and encourage members to take preventive cool-down periods. This goes for emergency responses and training.
  • Adopt a robust Heat Illness Prevention Program Policy and ensure personnel are trained on it every year. The same regulation mentioned above requires that employees be trained to avoid heat-related illness and injury.
For additional resource material and information to use in your agency or to raise awareness of heat illness for at-risk individuals in your community, click on the links below: Sam DiGiovanna is a 33-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale, Calif. He also is a consultant for Lexipol Fire Services.