As a firefighter, I've always had a special "love affair" with water. After all, when you're waiting for that hose line to charge, flame dancing out into the hallway and over your head, you want nothing more than that precious fluid to come gushing out and save the day.
But water is much more than that. It is our essence, the body's most vital nutrient, essential for life, because the body cannot store or conserve it. About seventy percent of muscles and seventy-five percent of our brains are made up of the earth's most precious compound, H2O. Water is involved in almost every metabolic process, and the only substance our bodies crave more is oxygen.
Maintaining a constant state of hydration is a major concern for everybody, but especially for firefighters. Allowing dehydration to set in will cause premature fatigue at any fire operation, as well as loss of coordination, both physical and mental.
You should be aware of the initial symptoms of dehydration:
- Thirst (even mild thirst)
- Possible muscle cramps
- Lack of energy
- General weakness
- Rapid and shallow breathing
- Drop in blood pressure
It is unwise to rely on thirst as the indicator of how much fluid has been lost. Do not wait until you are thirsty to drink, and just as importantly, do not stop replenishing your fluids once your thirst is satisfied. As a working firefighter, you should maintain your body in a constant state of hydration throughout your shift by drinking at least eight, 8 ounce glasses of water throughout the day.
Continuous fluid replenishment is essential for avoiding minor to moderate dehydration, and water (or a sports drink with less than 8 percent carbohydrate, see related article) is the best choice. Coffee and even some soft drinks contain caffeine, a diuretic, leading to further dehydration. Sweetened drinks (greater than 6 to 8 percent sugar), or even fruit juices, are not absorbed as rapidly as water and there's a tendency for intestinal cramping when used for hydration.
It's also important to stay hydrated during exercise. In fact, working out and fighting fires can be very similar in nature, in that they tax the body to an extreme level. One major exception does exist, and that's the out-of-control nature of firefighting. During exercise, we have control of when, how, how long, and how hard we work. Unfortunately, when arriving first due at a building fire, there are not too many things under our control.
Fluid Replacement Guidelines and Exercise
- Consume one to two cups of water (8 to 16 ounces) at least one hour before the start of exercise.
- If possible, consume eight ounces of water 20 minutes before the start of exercise.
- Consume four to eight ounces of water every 10 to 15 minutes during your workout.
Serious dehydration can lead to heat exhaustion, and a life-threatening condition known as heat stroke, whereby the body becomes unable to cool itself through the normal process of perspiration, and the skin becomes red, warm (greater than 105 degrees F), and dry. If you suspect heat stroke has occurred, get the victim out of the hot and/or sunny area and to the emergency room as soon as possible. Remember to never attempt giving anything by mouth, including fluid, to someone who has lost consciousness.
Water should be always available. The firehouse refrigerator can be stocked with bottled or filtered water, and every member should have open access to it. On the fireground, the first or second due pump operator can initially set up a bent tip nozzle with a trickle flow to make water available before the rest and recuperation units arrive to hydrate the troops.
Following these guidelines will help firefighters avoid possible dehydration during fire operations, and in the gym. Be smart and take advantage of natures most abundant resource. Drink at least one gallon of water every day and protect yourself from the many perils of dehydration.