By Richard Marinucci
Often little things that occur during an incident determine the overall effectiveness and success of the operation. Departments should pursue continual improvement in and must look at every aspect of their operations to see where incremental improvements can be made. One area to consider is the differences presented with changing seasons. Although not necessarily a major consideration, there are some things that change as summer temperatures increase. This would be true regardless of whether you are in the desert areas of Arizona, where there is little transition from winter to spring, or in the northern part of the country where there are more defined seasons.
Climate changes affect personnel, apparatus, and equipment. They also can present different emergencies to which departments respond. Therefore, it is prudent to review operations as the seasons change just to make sure everyone is on the same page. Complacency must not creep into the organization or its members because this will impact the quality of service provided and could affect firefighter health and safety. This is not a major challenge to an organization but one that warrants specific review to pay attention to the little details that determine the level of service provided.
Apparatus and Equipment
Increasing temperatures may adversely affect apparatus and equipment if crews do not follow manufacturer-recommended practices. It is a good idea to review owner’s manuals and perform routine maintenance as seasons change. Review operating apparatus and equipment relative to summer conditions, especially equipment only used during very warm months. It may also be appropriate to check on items that do not need to be carried on the vehicle. For example, ice melting chemicals and salt no longer need to be on vehicles during the summer in cold-weather states and can be stored until the next season change.
Although not all apparatus has air conditioning, it has become almost a necessity in many organizations. As an example, departments providing EMS transport probably require this feature for the benefit of those receiving treatment. It also can provide an area for firefighter rehabilitation when operating in high temperatures. You need to make sure it is working properly long before it is needed.
In many fire departments, the threat of relatively small grass and brush fires exists during warmer months. As such, equipment for these incidents is not part of the standard furnishings year round. If this is the case, the equipment needs to be checked to make sure it is in the proper working condition and placed on apparatus in locations for the best access. A review of all equipment is necessary, even if brief in nature. Simple steps make sure all the bases are covered and personnel are prepared to do the best possible job.
Summer conditions can affect personnel performance as well as health and well-being. Excessive heat and humidity will warrant shorter work periods and appropriate rehabilitation time. This is not earth-shattering news, but a reminder is appropriate on occasion. Also remind personnel about the signs and symptoms of various heat-related illnesses. Firefighters not only need to consider their own situations but also should look out for the rest of their crew.
One item not often considered is sunscreen. If members are working in the direct sun, especially midday with exposed skin, you should do whatever you can to offer protection. This can be by covering up, sunscreen, or short stints of exposure. Again, this is not a big issue in the overall scheme of things but can be helpful when protecting personnel. Finally, hydrate, hydrate, hydrate! This is important throughout the day, not just during an incident. All of this also applies to training that takes place outside. There are examples of firefighters suffering adversely during warm weather training.
Summertime can bring severe storms to many parts of the country. High winds, lightning, and hail are three very dangerous conditions to anyone working and exposed to these individually or collectively. Departments must have a standard operating policy or guideline regarding when to continue to work and when conditions are such that firefighters should take cover until the threat passes. On rare occasions, firefighters don’t get a choice of their weather-related working conditions. Almost always, fire departments can wait out severe weather. It is as simple as understanding the need to risk a lot to save a lot and risk a little to save a little.
Though not often considered, personnel vacation schedules can change things for some departments in the short term. The economy has had an impact on staffing levels in many departments. As firefighters look to use their earned vacation time, it could further affect staffing levels if not managed properly. This can also have a bearing on training both as a group and for individuals, because their leave could have them missing mandatory sessions and other vital skill maintenance requirements.
Summer weather will present emergencies not generally found in the other seasons. There is nothing especially complicated about any of them, but a simple reminder from time to time can avoid an unnecessary accident or event. The heat can cause health problems in a community. Besides the need to treat victims of heat stroke, heat exhaustion, and the like, a fire department may be called on to help address a larger, community-based circumstance. Excessive heat and drought could endanger large populations, especially the elderly. Fire departments should be part of the planning process and must offer support to the community.
The information presented is not thought of as much of a big deal in the overall scope of fire department operations. It is intended to serve as a reminder of some little things that need to be remembered and also get personnel thinking about other “little things” that can be done to keep personnel safe and healthy while delivering the best possible service to the community. Seasonal changes can be subtle and gradual. Organizations must not be lulled into complacency, regardless of how minor some of these issues seem.
RICHARD MARINUCCI is chief of the Northville Township (MI) Fire Department. He retired as chief of the Farmington Hills (MI) Fire Department in 2008, a position he had held since 1984. He is a Fire Apparatus & Emergency Equipment editorial advisory board member, a past president of the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC), and past chairman of the Commission on Chief Fire Officer Designation. In 1999, he served as acting chief operating officer of the U.S. Fire Administration for seven months. He has a master’s degree and three bachelor’s degrees in fire science and administration and has taught extensively.