Firefighters, by the nature of their job, already have one of the hottest jobs you could imagine. But what about when Mother Nature brings blazing temperatures on the outside as well?
When a massive fire broke out in an apartment building on Queen Anne Hill on July 1 , firefighters were called in from as far away as Redmond, Shoreline and Bellevue as temperatures were sitting at 90 degrees. Why so many firefighters from all over? To make sure there were plenty on hand to rotate in and out so firefighters didn't overheat.
And with 90 degrees suddenly common this summer around Seattle, I wondered how local fire departments were dealing with the relentless heat, and how they manage to keep firefighters cool when their surroundings are burning up.
"It is brutal. It really is," said Battalion Fire Chief Doug McDonald with Renton Fire. "Even the most in-shape firefighter is going to be impacted by the heat."
Preparations for a hot day begin with each shift.
"Every morning at shift change, the shift commander, the battalion chiefs and deputy chiefs have a conference call that will include dispatchers," said Deputy Chief Mark Larson with Seattle Fire. "Usually part of conversation is to go over the temperature projections that day."
Then they'll formulate a plan with the dispatchers:
"(We tell them) if we get a full response, when they're listening to the response, and they're listening to what is happening on the scene by those first arriving companies, they've been empowered based on what they're hearing to send a couple more engines on their way," Larson said. "Incident commanders are also prompted: don't hesitate to call for another alarm or a few more companies."
It is something Larson says they're all cognizant of.
"The safety officer will frequently bring hand-held weather stations to fire scenes and constantly check the weather conditions at the scene, reporting to incident commander the weather data. The whole team is empowered to say 'hey, we need some more help here.' "
It's important for firefighters to get a break, because when temperatures are this hot, it can be well over 100 degrees inside the firefighters' suits, which can weigh as much as 65 pounds.
"They're fully encapsulated, their body just doesn't breathe," Larson said. "The sweat mechanism continues to kick, but the body isn't able to cool because you're encapsulated."
He said all their firefighters are trained on evaluating others and knowing the symptoms of heat or cold stress.
"The incident commander or training officer would take steps such as providing a more formal rehabilitation area, where we could include more water or activate our cooling techniques," Larson said.
I asked if he could give some examples of what firefighters feel like battling a blaze when it's so hot outside.
"Generally speaking as rule of thumb, let's say it's 70 degrees, a firefighter working in full suit, we tack on an additional 10 degrees, and if they're in direct sunlight, we tack on another 10 degrees," Larson said. "Theoretically it could be 90 degrees to that firefighter even though the ambient temperature is only 70."
Now, start with 90 degrees on the outside. Imagine how hot it is to them on the inside!
"We recognize their protective ensemble does not allow the body to cool property, and the fact you're in direct sunlight, it exacerbates that problems," Larson said. "Temperatures like this, the incident commanders are anticipating that heat, they're calling in additional resources in order to quicken up the rotation, so we don't have firefighters going 20, 30, 40 minutes without a break. It would be far, far too much on their bodies."
To illustrate this point, Larson said during training exercises, all outdoor full-suit training ends when it gets to 89 or 90 degrees.
"From an emergency response standpoint, we don't get that choice," Larson said.
In those cases, they deploy a special rehabilitation unit that comes equipped with pop-up tents for shade, chairs, and special cooling chairs -- "Where the arm rests go, they're actually tubes filled with cold water and just the simplicity of bare skin putting into that (cold water tube), it lowers your body core temperature fairly rapidly," Larson said. And they have heat misters available for the super-hot days:
Due to warm weather misting fans being used to cool firefighters at fire scene pic.twitter.com/iZWTyWsdTb— Seattle Fire Dept (@SeattleFire) July 30, 2015
In addition, volunteers -- usually retired firefighters -- come with drinks and food for fluid and electrolyte replacement. And, of course, paramedics come to the scene so firefighters are constantly being evaluated in the heat.
Sometimes, firefighters get a needed break simply by just getting out of their suit.
"Get them out of their gear. Get their helmet off. Find a shade area or put up a pop up (tent), get them in the shade, get them some fluid, check the heart rate, and see how their they're doing," Larson said. "If there's a question about are they compensating well? Are they recovering well? That would prompt an evaluation -- sometimes a visual, 'hey, are you OK?' Sometimes maybe more like a heart rate and blood pressure work (and check): Are we dealing with potential dehydrations? So we take a lot of precautions with that."
McDonald said the goal is to get firefighters' body temp to cool below 100.6 degrees.
"They have to stay in rehab until get their body temperature down, because the body is working so hard, we have to make sure they're hydrated," McDonald said.
So, how long typically do firefighters go before taking a break?
"Generally in cooler weather times, we operate under a 'two bottle rule.' Once they go through two air bottles, it's about 15-20 minutes of full-on physical work," Larson said. "In a situation like (a 90 degree day), the incident commander may decide, OK, after one bottle you go to (be checked out), and that's why we call in extra crews so that way, we have the replacement so we don't have to force the firefighters to expend that level of energy. It's a tremendous about of energy. When you start talking about the thermal stresses on them, the gear we wear, it does not allow your body to cool because you're fully encapsulated, and we want them to cool down so they can get back to work.... (We ask) lots of questions to them before they get returned to a position at a fire scene where an incident commander would allow them go back into the fray."
Larson gave a good example of just how much energy they expend.
"If you jumped on a treadmill and you went 15 -20 minutes, you'll probably get your heart rate up to 150, 160, maybe 170 range. But jump off the treadmill and 5 minutes later, you're back down into the 80s or 90s," Larson said. "The thing with a firefighter, once you're in all this gear, just the sheer fact of being in all that gear and walking a distance, you can see a heart rate jump from 70-80 up into the 170 range very quickly, so we have to be cognizant of these type of things. The thermal strain on the body and their ability to think clearly and make good decisions because once your body heats up like that, you run the risk of getting into some of the heat illnesses like heat stress, heat exhaustion, or heat stroke. Then, you can be in a true medical emergency. Once we get up into heat stroke, that is a true big time problem."
So, when Mother Nature turns up the heat, firefighters turn on their watchfulness, and again ask residents to please be aware of their surroundings and keep firefighters' jobs to a minimum.
"I would just ask that the citizens are aware of what’s going on around them," McDonald said. "Please, please, please avoid doing anything- outdoor burning, cigarette butts out the window -- anything like that that could potentially start that fire."