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Heat makes battling fires a grueling task

June 19, 2006|by JENNIFER FITCH

TRI-STATE - As smoke drifted from a Blue Ridge Summit, Pa., house on Sunday, firefighters exiting the structure collapsed on the lawn as emergency medical technicians provided them with bottled water and cold towels.

The EMTs also monitored blood pressure and pulse, while some of the firefighters continued to hold oxygen masks against their mouths.

On a day when temperatures reached 92 degrees, the suits designed to protect firefighters from heat also trapped moisture and heat close to their bodies.

"We're used to the heat, but adding the exterior temperature on top of it makes it that much worse," said Bob Burner, who is the public information officer for the Shepherdstown (W.Va.) Volunteer Fire Department. That department responded to an apartment fire in Charles Town, W.Va., on Sunday morning.

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Temperatures in the bedroom where the Blue Ridge Summit fire started probably reached 600 to 800 degrees, Blue Ridge Summit Fire Chief John Fleagle said.

Temperatures inside the suits can reach up to 200 degrees in certain situations, Waynesboro (Pa.) Deputy Fire Chief Jody Sanders said. The Waynesboro department had about 25 firefighters respond to the Blue Ridge Summit house fire.

"The guys cannot stay in too long," Fleagle said. "Typically they would be able to stay in longer."

When the day is exceptionally hot and humid, firefighters ideally spend no more than 20 minutes in the building, Fleagle said. On other days, they might stay inside 40 to 45 minutes, Burner said.

The ambulance squads set up rehabilitation stations, Sanders said. There, the ambulance squads focus on monitoring vital signs and hydrating firefighters, Burner said.

The health of emergency responders is a top priority, Independent Fire Co. Chief Ed Smith said. His Charles Town department responded to back-to-back calls Sunday.

"Our philosophy is that if we let ourselves go down, we're no good to anybody else. We don't take more victims to the scene," Burner said.

"It's something that we're used to, and we know that as officers, we have to take care of our guys," Sanders said.

Safety officers are typically on the scene of fires. Those officers are generally given the authority to halt operations.

The Frederick County Department of Fire and Rescue Services monitors conditions daily and maintains five categories. On a Class 5 day, greater than 91 degrees, firefighters are given guidelines on the amount of time they must rest.

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