Ad-Express and Daily Iowegian, Centerville, IA

CNHI/Southeast Iowa

August 28, 2013

Dangerous heat adds to firefighters' risk

OTTUMWA — Being outside in this weather is tough enough. When your job requires you to wear the equivalent of a heavy winter suit and protective pants, it's miserable.

With Ottumwa set to push the 100 degree mark, Fire Chief Tony Miller has to keep one eye on the thermometer and another on his firefighters.

“On days like this, we do indoor training,” he said. “You don't want your guys to get overheated, so we pre-plan.”

There's only one problem: Fires are notoriously bad at keeping to a schedule. And if a building catches fire, not responding is not an option.

There are some basic things you can do. The department keeps ice water on the trucks for the firefighters. If necessary, you can even hose down the firefighters. But the single biggest thing is monitoring people's conditions.

“We watch them closer than we normally do,” Miller said. The focus shifts to getting the firefighters cooled off as soon as they exit the building. “We cool them down immediately.”

Medical crews always respond to fires along with the firefighters. It's simply too dangerous a job not to take that step. That means firefighters can get quick treatment if they need it.

It's rare, but firefighters occasionally have to be taken to the hospital to get cooled down if they get dangerously overheated. There are limits to what the crews can handle on-scene.

“We had one incident earlier this year when we did have to take a guy to the hospital,” said Miller. “You can only do so much.”

Weather like what is hitting Iowa this week leaves firefighters hoping for calm. That hasn't been the case so far this year, though. More than 30 structure fires this year have made it among the busiest in recent memory.

The fires don't seem to have a clear pattern. They've been in different parts of the city and have had different causes. There hasn't been a clear thread tying them together.

It leaves Miller scratching his head.

“I've been here 32 years, and I've never had one like this,” he said.

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