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With the approach of summer, firefighters should prepare for the difficulties of operating in warm to hot weather. Physical conditioning can help us prepare for firefighting in conditions which can be dangerous to our health. Heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke, which can be fatal, are all ailments that can accompany firefighting in hot, humid weather.
Incident commanders must recognize the limitations that their troops face while operating in high heat and humidity conditions. Firefighters are often physically spent after only 10 to 15 minutes when the THI (temperature-humidity index) exceeds 90. Additional assistance will be required if the fire is not immediately controlled. The need for reinforcements should be planned for as soon as a working fire is encountered when the THI exceeds 90. If fresh troops are not needed for fire control, they can relieve the troops who knocked the fire down, performing overhaul.
In some cases, getting reinforcements may require the transmission of multiple alarms or calling mutual aid. Some chiefs are reluctant to call for these alarms for fear they will be perceived as weak, that "they can't handle a fire without help." That's nonsense! Such requests for assistance should be taken as a sign that the officer is looking out for the welfare of his or her firefighters as well as the welfare of the community. Weary firefighters make mistakes and move slower and get injured at a higher rate than do fresh personnel. The relief of firefighters has contributed to a decline in the number of members on medical leave.
Photo by Mike Schroeder
Firefighter Joe Jacobs, being assisted by Firefighters Brad Tooman and Richard Rummler, was one of five firefighters to suffer from heat exhaustion during a restaurant fire in Port Huron, MI, in June 1995. Heat exhaustion, heat cramps and heat stroke, which can be fatal, are all ailments that can accompany firefighting in hot, humid weather.
Relief and rotation of personnel has other benefits. Overhaul is accomplished more quickly, with less resulting incidental damage, and additional people get an opportunity to sharpen their skills. In recent years, there has been a nationwide trend toward fewer and fewer fires and thus less hands-on experience for firefighters. Rotating crews can help expose more personnel to each incident.
Of course, relief of personnel is not strictly a summer problem. Fires in cellars, sub-cellars and high-rise buildings are common examples of incidents which routinely require rotation and relief of companies, even in the dead of winter. This is largely due to the degree of confinement and the use of large quantities of steel and concrete, radiating heat back at attack crews. Under these oven-like conditions crews often need relief every five minutes to avoid baking within their protective clothing.
High-rises have the additional problem of fatigue. When elevators are unsafe or unusable, attack crews must walk up many flights before they can go to work. At a recent high-rise multiple-alarm fire, my unit climbed up more than 30 flights of stairs, forced many doors, searched dozens of apartments, opened walls and ceilings, and did all the other required tasks for nearly three hours. During a slight respite, we were told by our sector commander to go up several more floors to check out a report of yet another involved apartment with people trapped. Only after we reached this floor and found that our services were not required (other units had gotten there first) did we assess our physical condition. It was terrible. We were vastly overextended.
In the heat of a serious firefight, the involved crews are often not the best judges of their physical stamina. The heart and mind are willing, but the body is saying, "No mas, no mas." That is why safety officers as well as incident and sector commanders must be alert to what tasks the units under their command have been performing, and be prepared to provide them with relief in a timely fashion.