The arrival of summer brings more than the prospect of outdoor activities and family vacations.
For firefighters, summer is a time when the already intense physical demands of firefighting become still more challenging. As we know, lifting and carrying heavy firefighting equipment and performing such tasks as rescues, extinguishment, and forcible entry – all while wearing cumbersome turnout gear and personal protective equipment – is arduous in the best of circumstances. Add hot and humid weather conditions to the equation and the work of fighting fires can easily become relentlessly taxing.
In our most recent report on Patterns of Firefighter Fireground Injuries during 2010-2014, we found that July was the peak month for injuries, with an estimated monthly average of 3,140 injuries (10% of the annual total). It’s reasonable to assume that the influence of weather conditions on the firefighter work environment had something to do with this finding. The types of injuries that occurred in July also suggested the influence of hot and humid seasonal conditions. For instance, the report found that July had the highest share of injuries involving exhaustion/fatigue symptoms (15% of the annual total), as well as the highest share of injuries caused by strain or sprain (34% of the total). Each of these outcomes can be reasonably associated with hotter weather-related work environments.
It’s important to keep in mind that the direct effects of working in hot weather are only part of the issue here. While heat exhaustion, heat stroke, and other heat-related outcomes represent serious health threats in their own right, the ability of firefighters to make good decisions and maintain situational awareness can also be compromised by fatigue that is exacerbated in hot weather conditions. In the fireground environment, where situations are dynamic and the consequences of miscalculation can prove fatal, it’s essential that fire departments have a program in place that recognizes the mental as well as physical implications of extreme weather conditions.
There are a number of steps that fire departments should take in order to safeguard firefighter safety and health when temperatures begin to soar – and it’s important to emphasize that this extra care extends to training, as well as fires in the community. At the top of this list, ensuring that firefighters are in good physical shape, always a critical factor, takes on additional importance in the summer months. Also important are ensuring proper hydration, rest and rehabilitation, adequate staffing, and medical monitoring by safety officers.
Hazards are always going to be part of firefighting, and weather conditions will be what they are. But planning, preparation, and standardized protocols can minimize risk for firefighters during emergency response and training, in hot weather months and throughout the year. Guidance on safety procedures is available in NFPA 1584 Standard on the Rehabilitation Process for Members during Emergency Operations and Training Exercises.