Protecting yourself against the weather

By Becky Sherek, EMT/RN-Northern Health and Fitness Plus

When firefighters respond to an emergency in sub-zero temperatures, they need to
keep a number of things in mind.   More than anything else, they need to be aware
of the impact of weather conditions on personal safety.  They need to use this
awareness in order to remain safe throughout the entire operation, whether it’s a
structure fire, vehicle extrication call or high angle rescue.

The human body can do little to adapt to a cold environment. Cold, wetness and
wind challenge the body to maintain core temperatures above 35* C (94* F). The
selection of clothing is the single most important variable that fire personnel can use
to achieve acceptable levels of thermo regulation. The key aims of dressing
appropriately can be remembered by the abbreviated letters- VIP: ventilation to
selectively control heat storage and loss by adjusting clothing, insulation to control
heat escape through conduction, and protection against wind and rain, which greatly
accelerate heat loss.

The layer next to the skin should have the warmth and wicking ability which is
referred to as the under layer. Adequate insulation and the ability to selectively
ventilate are by far the most important characteristics of the next layer, which is the
insulation layer. Wind and moisture can be serious challenges to thermo regulation,
so protection against the elements and selective ventilation are the most important
functions of the protective outer layer.

Firefighters should take the time to select the appropriate clothing that is needed to
protect themselves when working in these conditions. It is worthy to mention that the
additional weight of clothing and other gear used to protect against the environment
adds to the energy requirement of the body to work effectively.  When the body gets
exhausted due to lack of energy stores and if the firefighter has been standing
around after being physically active, the body becomes fatigued.   This puts the
firefighter at risk, along with other fire department members.

What does all this mean when the alarm comes in during the cold winter months?
The challenge of the incident or fire is not the only concern. Cold weather firefighting
requires an understanding and respect for its impact, potential, and demands, and
the ultimate consideration for personal safety.  Being prepared to maintain near
normal body temperature, to conserve body energy stores, and to lose body heat to
the extent that sweating is minimal should be the ultimate goal whenever a firefighter
is called to do his or her duty in sub-zero temperatures.
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