First responders train and respond to calls, no matter how hot it gets
Once Texas gets into summer, temperatures easily make it over a sweltering 100 degrees for days in a row. It’s enough to make anyone dread stepping out of the air conditioning into what, when paired with high humidity, the National Weather Service calls “oppressive” heat. It comes with heat related illnesses.
But for first responders, staying inside isn’t an option.
When there’s a fire or medical emergency, the fire department responds in full, heavy gear, and when there’s a special event or law enforcement needs to direct traffic, police stand out in the sun, sometimes for hours at a time. Even shorter stints in the heat, responding to a call and waiting for detectives or more officers to arrive, can be dangerous.
Michael Drivdahl, spokesman for the Fort Worth Fire Department, said heat exhaustion is always a concern. When firefighters are out in the heat for an extended period of time with all the heavy, heat-retaining gear they wear, it’s easy to collapse from the temperature.
“There’s a little bit of pride that plays into it,” Drivdahl said. “We’ve got a job to do and we’re going to get it done.”
Firefighters have to be careful even during training. One firefighter collapsed June 27 due to heat exhaustion during a ventilation training exercise at fire station 17, Drivdahl said. He was hospitalized.
How firefighters combat heat
Many of first responders’ changes in routine may seem small or obvious, but Drivdahl said the difference those alterations make are hard to exaggerate.
Staying hydrated and using sunscreen issued to police, firefighters and paramedics are some of the more obvious steps.
The sunscreen may be especially important for firefighters: A 2017 study published in the Journal of the American Medical Association found that firefighters have a higher risk of skin cancer than the general population.
Other resources are more innovative, like the fire department’s cooling station — a simple covered trailer with a large fan and mister in the back that can help turn 100 degrees into 80 degrees.
“That makes a big difference when you’re on a call for an extended period of time,” Drivdahl said.
Extended calls can also be made easier by the fire department’s rehab truck — which is air conditioned and delivers water, Gatorade and snacks to firefighters working in the sun for a long period of time — and red helmets — a group of volunteers that can be called on to deliver the same thing as the rehab truck, minus the air conditioning.
Air conditioning has been added to trucks, though. A new system keeps the cabin of firetrucks cool while firefighters are responding to a call. Drivdahl said this serves two purposes: giving crews immediate relief from the heat once they step into the truck and keeps medicines stored there cool.
MedStar’s summer strategy
MedStar Medical spokesman Matt Zavadsky said the summer risks for first responders goes beyond the heat.
When responding to a call in the summer, first responders are more likely to come across an inebriated or angry person, Zavadsky said.
“One of the things that happens is that people deal with prolonged heat in different ways and often times become angry, and when people are hot and bothered they do things they wouldn’t normally do,” Zavadsky said. “That sometimes makes it more dangerous for first responders in general, because people are more upset than they normally would be.”
Some people drink cold alcoholic beverages to stay cool in the heat, which can add more difficulty when first responders arrive at a scene, Zavadsky said.
When it comes to the direct effects of heat, the gear they wear — police and MedStar paramedics wear bullet proof vests while firefighters often wear heavy coats, pants, boots and helmets to protect them from fire — often traps heat.
Drivdahl said firefighters are instructed to remove their gear as soon as they can during hotter months. For police, Zavadsky said the dark colors they wear don’t help with the heat.
“I think officers are pretty good at doing this, but when it’s available and they can, we recommend catching some shade,” Gomez said.
For MedStar, each ambulance is equipped with three air conditioning units: one in the front cab and two in the back, where the patient rides.
They also send a ambus — an ambulance bus — to special events where the public, law enforcement, firefighters and paramedics can step into the AC and have a cold water.
When first responders are stuck on extended calls, MedStar can also send the ambus to act similarly to the fire departments rehab truck. There, paramedics can help first responders stay hydrated. They can even use intravenous methods to help alleviate dehydration.
Police and the summer swelter
Fort Worth police are given options in their uniform including wearing an exterior bulletproof vest that breathes better, department approved baseball caps and cowboy hats to keep the sun off their head and face and lighter material.
Officers can wear “anything that’s comfortable for them, depending on the department approved uniforms,” Fort Worth Police Department Spokesman Ivan Gomez said. “We recommend that if that’s something that they like and are comfortable in they wear that.”
Police also utilize Special Event Emergency Response teams that do the same thing as red helmets, delivering water and food to officers who cannot leave their position to get it themselves, but there are no mobile cooling stations.
Aside from that, getting out of the sun when possible is one of the simple recommendations for avoiding the heat.
While heat related illnesses may impact first responders at a disproportionate rate, Zavadsky said the public is at risk as well.
“Everything we do to protect ourselves, the general public needs to do to protect themselves,” he said.