By Tim Potter
Wichita Eagle – June 30, 2015
Photo by Travis Heying.
If anyone knows how to survive summer’s heat, it’s firefighters.
They battle red-hot blazes while wearing thick gear, and they respond to emergencies where people are overcome by heat.
The key is to start hydrating well before you’re going to be doing some serious sweating, said Wichita Fire Marshal Brad Crisp. Firefighters are told to begin drinking plenty of water and electrolytes the day before they come to work, said Wichita fire Capt. Dan Feil.
Or, as Howard Chang puts it: “You don’t want to start your trip with an empty tank.”
“Our bodies are really fine-tuned machines,” said Chang, medical director of the emergency department for Via Christi hospitals.
Sweating is the body’s mechanism for dissipating heat, and if you are dehydrated, you are not going to be able sweat enough to cool down, Chang said.
Proper hydration comes from water and drinks with electrolytes, Crisp said. Electrolytes include things like sodium or potassium that help the body, especially muscles, to function. Alcoholic drinks and coffee, tea and other caffeinated beverages take water out of the body.
Too much alcohol and too much heat is a dangerous combination, especially when someone passes out, Chang said. Fire and rescue workers see the situation with homeless people abusing alcohol. The patients are already overexposed to the heat, and then alcohol compounds the problem by dehydrating them.
Generally, the people who are most vulnerable to becoming ill from heat are the very old, the very young and those who are obese, experts say. Older people’s bodies can’t compensate as well, and infants depend on others. Every year across the nation, small children die when they are left in closed-up, super-heated vehicles.
Older folks and young children can get overheated in 30 minutes to an hour in the sun, said Ashley Lunkenheimer, a Wesley Medical Center emergency department manager. She’s seen people come into the emergency room with body temperatures of 105 degrees, when it shouldn’t be above 99.4.
An obese person’s body is already strained, and the added stress of heat causes them to sweat more and get dehydrated very quickly, Lunkenheimer said. Also, excess fat works as insulator and makes it harder for the body to dissipate heat, Chang said.
Heat also puts people who are at risk of heart attack or stroke at a higher risk, Lunkenheimer said.
When you get exhausted from heat, it can affect your judgment, Lunkenheimer said. You might do something you normally wouldn’t. “And you may not realize you should get out of the heat, because you can’t think clearly.”
So the moment minor symptoms show up, it’s time to stop, she said. She’s heard patients describe how they suddenly felt overcome: “I didn’t feel bad until I did.” “Before I knew it, I passed out.”
Staying out of the heat, of course, also is key. That’s why construction workers and others who have to work outside learn to get things done in the cooler morning hours and to take frequent breaks in the shade. When Crisp did some part-time roofing 20 years ago, he would start at 5 a.m. and finish at noon.
When it’s hot, firefighters avoid training outside to limit their exposure and conserve energy, to save it for the emergency calls, Crisp said.
Part of prevention is thinking before you start working, said Feil, the fire captain. For example, he said, an elderly person who does yard work in the spring with no problem might not realize how fast he or she can get overcome when the temperature and humidity rises.
Wichita has seen the weather turn from relatively cool to very hot recently, said Sedgwick County EMS Maj. Kevin Lanterman. “People’s bodies haven’t acclimated to it,” he said. He recommends that people wear light-colored, loose-fitting clothing to reduce the heat.
Some early warning signs, Feil said, include thirst, a headache, light-headedness, and profuse sweating that is not making you cooler.
When fire crews work in hot weather, they have to take a break at which their vital signs, including blood pressure, are checked.
If the readings aren’t acceptable, the firefighter can be taken to a hospital.