There are times when firefighters will face dehydration despite knowing that hydration is imperative for job performance within the fire service. That experience of being dehydrated while on shift, particularly when responding to a fire, is one to avoid. Energy loss, faintness/dizziness and other potential serious complications, which range from rapid heart rate, heat stroke and seizures to even death, are at the forefront of dehydration. For some, it comes naturally to create a hydration routine that works; for others, whether they experienced dehydration or not, it takes more effort and thought to achieve optimal hydration while they are on the job.
Being adequately hydrated on shift must be prioritized for a firefighter’s health and wellness. Here are tips that you can incorporate that go beyond the idea of “just drink more water.”
Understand optimal hydration
How much water to consume to stay hydrated under normal conditions often is questioned, with varying recommendations from organizations and studies. From the number of cups (8–11 cups as a minimum starting point) to the amount of ounces (half of body weight in ounces), hydration needs are more individualized based on a person’s health, activity level, climate and more. One way to measure hydration is to monitor urine output and its color. Clear to light yellow indicates hydration; darker colors indicate dehydration. Paying attention to the color of one’s urine can lessen or avoid the risk of becoming dehydrated.
Another way that the body can tell you about your hydration level is via thirst levels. (We often go by thirst as a measure of when to drink water, when, in reality, it’s a symptom of the start of being dehydrated.)
Get into a routine
Incorporate positive hydration habits, so it becomes second nature. One approach might involve starting the day with a cup of water. (We tend only to focus on coffee in our morning routines.) Maybe it involves finding a water bottle that is your best friend—I recommend a durable, reusable, insulated bottle—one that you take everywhere, so you are reminded to drink water.
Finding what works for you is key to creating a successful hydration routine.
Make it effortless
Incorporate simple strategies that can affect your hydration. For example, find ways to enjoy water or switch it up (e.g., add fruit and/or fresh herbs to a pitcher of water).
Include water-rich foods, such as hydrating fruits and vegetables, smoothies, soups and dairy products, including milk and yogurt, in your diet.
Understand when and how to rehydrate and refuel, so you can avoid extreme dehydration and achieve adequate recovery. Exercise and your environment influence hydration needs based on sweat loss. For example, at the fireground, firefighters lose more water quickly because of heat, gear and athletic performance. Being in tune with this by understanding when a break and refueling are needed is key here.
The goal of rehydrating and replenishing focuses on incorporating water, electrolytes and sugar—components that are found in sports drinks. When you choose a sports drink, watch excessive sugar intake or dilute the mixture. Including natural sports drink alternatives (coconut water or even pickle, tart cherry or citrus juice with water) and water-rich, nutrient-dense produce plus some sea salt in your diet can ensure rehydration efforts are effective.
Because a large part of the job as a firefighter involves being prepared for unknown work tasks, staying adequately hydrated by making small yet achievable lifestyle changes is necessary for optimal job performance. Finding ways to achieve adequate hydration within the fire service that become part of the daily firefighter culture are crucial for the health and wellness of the community.