Firefighters find place to chill

LISA MARIE LENTZ

Herald Staff Writer


Daytime temperatures in the 90s, heat indexes in the 100s . . . and you think you're hot?

Try lugging 60 to 80 pounds of gear into a burning structure where the temperature may reach 1,500 degrees and you have some indication of the hazards firefighters face everyday.

One county fire district took this daily challenge and turned it into an idea - a rehab vehicle - that could result in being the prototype for more to come.

Interior design of the vehicle, a surplus Manatee County Area Transit mini-bus, was the brainchild of Southern Manatee Fire Rescue Chief Tom Hennessy.

Hennessy spent years researching firefighter health and safety issues and found that heat-related problems are the No. 1 cause of injury and death.

Without proper caution, he said, a firefighter's core temperature continues to rise and makes him more susceptible to heart attacks and stroke.

High temperatures can also cause heat cramps, heat exhaustion and worst of all, heat stroke - a medical emergency that happens when sweating stops and the body temperature sharply rises. Heat stroke can cause mental confusion, loss of consciousness, convulsions or even coma.

Hennessy, and a committee that included Lt. Bob Thayer, division Chief Tim Berry and firefighter Frank Meola, took their ideas and went to work. Six months later, the result is a vehicle that will help counteract the effects of the elements and reduce the chance of on-duty injuries to the firefighting team.

The truck has a three-part relief system, said Thayer, who with Meola, gutted and remodeled the inside of the vehicle in between fire and rescue calls.

The ice-cold air-conditioned interior has a bench where personnel can lie. The outside has an awning that provides shade for firefighters, and they also can enjoy misting fans and portable canopies. There are ice chests with water and Gatorade, iced towels, a portable restroom, and "core cooler" chairs that contain ice packs and cold water that flows over pulse points to cool the body.

"It just depends on what the firefighter needs," Thayer said.

The vehicle has its own generator and is self-sufficient for eight hours, he said. Although it belongs to the Southern Manatee district, it is available for any Manatee County use, and could be deployed for hurricane relief around the state if necessary.

The truck is dispatched from Station 1, Thayer said, and takes one person to operate. It has only been used in training, but is now ready for regular operation.

"It was great, the guys loved it," he said.

Hennessy anticipates frequent use of the unit, pointing to the state's sizzling year-round climate and the pounds of gear the firefighters are required to wear.

"That heat takes a toll, no matter how good of shape you're in," he said. "You can lose several pounds during one fire."

Hennessy's studies have convinced him that the key to a healthier force is hydration, balance of electrolytes and effective cooling of firefighters' temperatures.

He remembers the type of care given in the past.

"When I was a firefighter, they gave you a cup of water and told you to go find a shade tree," Hennessy said.

With one unit down and some very preliminary discussions about creating a prototype, Hennessy said he's looking ahead to a larger, more sophisticated truck.

"We've started budgeting," he said.

Lisa Marie Lentz, Herald reporter, can be reached at 708-7906 or at llentz@HeraldToday.com.