9 extreme heat safety tips for public safety personnel
As you ready yourself and your community for a heat wave, keep these tips in mind
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Record setting heat is scorching the American west and putting tens of millions of people, as well as the public safety professionals who care for them, at risk of heat emergencies. Sustained high temperatures are dangerous for anyone working outdoors or living in a residence without air conditioning. [At the end of this article, download an infographic for extreme heat safety]
As you respond in the heat or prepare for a heat wave in your community, here are a few things to keep in mind.
Personal safety in high-heat conditions
- Physical training. Schedule outdoor PT early in the morning or late in the afternoon. If you can’t beat the heat outdoors, workout indoors or take a couple of days off for more sleep – you probably need it.
- Hydration. Thirst is the best indicator to take a drink of water. Take a drink when you are thirsty. Pale or clear urine is another useful indicator of adequate hydration. If you are anticipating high-exertion, outdoor activity, pre-hydration may be useful, but not to the point of feeling full or bloated. Bring extra water in your vehicle in case you are unable to get back to the station.
- Electrolyte replacement. Sports drinks are useful for replacing electrolytes during and after long-durations of aerobic exercise, but they often contain empty sugar calories you may not need. Quench your thirst with water and replace electrolytes with a well-balanced diet before turning to sports or energy drinks.
- Manage the scene. As conditions allow, move patients, suspects or bystanders you are interacting with into the shade, air-conditioned vehicles or buildings. For EMS providers, move patients off the street or out of their hot home and into the air-conditioned ambulance sooner than you might otherwise.
- PPE removal and rehab. When safe to do so, remove PPE layers, such as masks, helmets or hats, turnout gear and body armor, to improve heat loss through radiation, conduction, evaporation and convection. When the ambient air temperature is in the high 90’s or 100’s, passive heat loss is ineffective, so enhance cooling with misting fans, ice packs, cooling towels or immersion.
- Watch your partner. Your human or K9 partner is also at risk when the temperatures climb. Early signs of dehydration, heat exhaustion and heat stroke include lethargy, confusion and other personality changes. If your partner seems “off”, take a water break out of the sun and humidity, and consider further assessment of their pulse rate, respiratory rate, mental status and recent water consumption.
Heat safety for your community
- Check on vulnerable populations. The elderly and people experiencing homelessness are at increased risk during high-heat and -humidity conditions. Some medications, as well as the aging process, compromise an older person’s ability to thermoregulate. The St. Charles County Ambulance District used a Costco grant to give seniors cold water and heat safety tips.
- Provide community education. Use department social channels, media outreach and face-to-face visits to discuss heat emergency signs and symptoms, prevention and emergency care. Consider partnering with your public health department to deliver formal or informal education programs to outdoor employers, such as construction and landscaping businesses, and youth sport camps.
- Open cooling centers. A cooling center is a community building, school or business that opens its doors and shares its air conditioning during extreme heat events to people who lack air conditioning in their home. An ambulance crew may be formally assigned to the cooling center, but it is also an opportunity for informal visits from community police officers or for firefighters to conduct community risk reduction programs. Relationship building and education are always valuable.
Worsening impact of climate change on public safety
Public safety personnel will continue to feel the impact of more frequent and more severe weather events on the calls they respond to, the equipment they need to replace or purchase, and the costs and complexity of building severe-weather hardened stations and communication centers. Get off the sidelines and participate in initiatives to reduce the increasingly worrisome impacts of climate change.
- Make your next ambulance, fire apparatus or patrol car purchase an electric or hybrid-electric vehicle.
- Include solar panels as part of any new station or remodel.
- Reduce fuel use and greenhouse emissions with idle mitigation technology.
Learn more about heat emergency safety
Learn more about heat emergencies and climate change’s impact on public safety with these resources.
- Hyperthermia: EMS assessment and management
- EMS rehab sector: Treating heat illness treatment on the fireground
- Feel the heat: Managing exertional heat stroke
- The Use of Cooling Centers to Prevent Heat-Related Illness: Summary of Evidence and Strategies for Implementation
- Risks and impacts of climate change on the fire service: FireRescue1 special coverage
- 6 rules for staying hydrated (in dog days, and all other seasons)
- Emergency Incident Rehab for firefighters to refuel, recharge
This article, originally published in June 2021, has been updated.