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Feeling the heat: Firefighters battle soaring temperatures as well as blazes

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

Photo by Corinne Nicholson

DULUTH -- On a particularly sultry summer day, Gwinnett County firefighters lounge under a nearby outcropping of trees, gulping Gatorade and draping frigid towels around their necks.

They crack jokes, their jackets off and suspenders draped around their knees. A home is ablaze just across the street.

These firefighters aren't loafing on their duties -- they're making sure they survive.

With colleagues rotating into the burning home, this group of public servants is rehabbing to safely be able to do its job.

"We've seen some guys having trouble with heat in the field, and we've seen some guys recently struggling in our fire academy classes," Gwinnett fire Capt. Scott Kennedy said that day. "With the heat index so high, you can't shed that extra heat. You just keep it."

This summer in Gwinnett, and across the country, has been especially brutal, with record highs seemingly every day and heat indexes regularly above 100 degrees. Add to that roughly 50 pounds of gear, tons of sweat and a blazing fire, and you have the potential recipe for disaster.

That's what makes time in the shade so crucial.

After battling a blaze in full gear for about 30 minutes (enough time to use a whole oxygen canister), firefighters emerge from the smoky haze to find the previously established "rehab zone."

"Once we get out, we come out of our gear, strip down to our pants and try to get in some shade, get some cool water and stuff," Kennedy said.

As colleagues replace them at the scene, the battle-tested firefighters begin the process.

They shed gear, hydrate and rest, while a paramedic or EMT makes rounds checking vitals.

Each man or woman must have their blood pressure (around 120 over 80), pulse rate (under 110) and oxygen and carbon monoxide levels checked and cleared before going back to fight the fire.

The rotation process is why multiple engines respond to even a small blaze. The rehab process is why bystanders will see firefighters seemingly lazing about throughout the ordeal.

"It may provoke some weird feelings among people that don't know what's going on," said Capt. Jeff Johnson, Gwinnett fire's safety officer.

Weird feelings or not, this is part of an important practice.

Johnson estimated that five Gwinnett County firefighters were treated for heat-related injuries or illness in 2009.

Despite the utmost precaution, 11 have already been treated in 2010 -- with no relief from the record-breaking summer in sight.

"The gear is made to protect us," Johnson said. "But at the same time, it can create a microclimate."

"Once you put on the gear and the pack and everything, you're approaching 50 pounds of extra weight," he added. "And then when you start perspiring, it just soaks it up like a sponge and increases the weight and heat even more."

If everything checks out, firefighters are permitted to redress and re-enter a scene within 20 minutes or so, trading spots with cohorts battling the blaze in their stead.

Any sign of dizziness, cramping, general weakness or headache, and they're yanked out of the rotation, evaluated on scene or taken to the hospital. Bringing the core temperature back down to normal levels is a must.

Gwinnett fire spokesman Capt. Tommy Rutledge is quick to point out that the National Fire Prevention Association has documented that the leading cause of firefighter death is not the Hollywood-ized, crushed-by-a-burning-beam idea.

It's heart attacks resulting from overexertion and dehydration.

"We get them out of there and get them cold beverages and cold towels around their neck," Johnson said. "Everybody loves those. It's like jumping into a pool almost."

Firefighters are also encouraged to start the hydration process before they come into work, drinking plenty of water, cutting back on caffeine and getting plenty of rest the night before they come in.

All that continues on the scene of a working fire -- even if it looks like they're just lazing around.

"It's all about staying cool and getting hydrated," Kennedy said.