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Hot as blazes: Firefighter recruits tackle dangers of heat

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Gwinnett County fire instructors Jeremy Austin, from left, Lt. Phillip Merck and Clayton Wright cool down and rehydrate after going through a drill with recruits on Tuesday morning.

Staff Photo: Jason Braverman. Gwinnett County fire instructors Jeremy Austin, from left, Lt. Phillip Merck and Clayton Wright cool down and rehydrate after going through a drill with recruits on Tuesday morning.

DACULA -- Think it's hot outside? Try strapping on about 50 pounds of firefighting gear and going into a burning building where temperatures can exceed 1,000 degrees.

Gwinnett County firefighter recruits did exactly that Tuesday. The training activity -- the first time these recruits faced a full-on simulated fire attack -- took place at the Gwinnett Fire Academy on a day in which the National Weather Service issued a heat advisory for most of north and central Georgia.

The high temperature on Tuesday was 92 degrees, and with the humid conditions, the heat index made it feel like it was 105 degrees outside, according to www.lawrencevilleweather.com.

The hot temperatures pose a real risk to firefighters, who basically engulf themselves in what feels like a thick oven mitt and walk into a broiling oven of a building, said Stoney Polite, captain of firefighter recruit training. During the summer months, heat-related injuries are the No. 1 threat firefighters face.

"This is huge in this time of year," Polite said, "... so we take precautions on the front end."

Hydration is especially important, and the department encourages its recruits and employees to drink at least half of their body weight in ounces of water, Polite said.

"You have no idea when that alarm's going to hit," he said. "If you're thirsty, you're already behind the eight ball. ... It takes immense preparation to even ponder (something) like wearing that gear and going into that building."

Part of that preparation is giving recruits experience in a controlled environment like the one at the Fire Academy, Polite said. Although the situation is closely monitored, it's still dangerous -- a fact that became apparent when an instructor became overheated after being in the smoldering building.

On the scene of the fire, the department puts employees on a work-rest cycle. In the summer for example, those who work for five minutes have to rest for 10. If they can, they get out of the sun. They also get their vitals checked, consume some water and replenish their electrolytes. Before returning to work, the firefighters must get their vital signs checked again to ensure they are medically OK to proceed.

Recruits are taught to look for medical signs like feeling dizzy or woozy or seeing spots.

"There's a threshold they teach us about," said Ryan Black, a recruit from Suwanee. "You have to be physically and mentally prepared. Your body is getting hotter and hotter inside your gear. Your body is trying to tell you, 'You're too hot. Get out.' ... It's very hot, but you have a job to do."

The work can be physically painful, but those who feel medically unable to continue are told to remove themselves from the environment, Black said.

It's also important for those working in the firefighting business to stay fit. Rebekah McInnes, a recruit from Buford, said she makes sure to eat healthy and avoid junk food.

"It's all about diet and taking in the right amount of fluids," she said.

While cleaning up her gear on Tuesday, she said the balmy temperatures outside felt good to her.

"It feels a lot cooler than when I was in there," she said. "I feel like I walked into AC."