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Fire, rescue services brace for hot weather emergencies

Cases of heat-induced illness have already begun to pop up in the Northern Shenandoah Valley with the arrival of sustained hot weather in the region during the last days of May.

Paramedics in Woodstock responded to a call from Central High School where several students and a teacher were feeling overheated during an appearance recently by the Washington Redskins on campus. Chief Gary Yew said an estimated eight people suffered "minor heat related illnesses that day." Most of them were treated at the scene, he said.

Yew said it is "not unusual" for his department to field about six calls a week for heat-related emergencies during an average summer.

Capt. Kevin Catlett, EMT instructor with Warren County Fire and Rescue Services, estimated his department responds to 20 to 30 heat-related calls during the course of a summer.

"It's hit or miss," Catlett said. "It depends on temperature and humidity. The higher the humidity, the more chance of it happening."

Chief Dennis Linaburg of the Frederick County Fire and Rescue Service said his department typically fields one or two calls a week, although the number can spike when the temperature exceeds 95 degrees.

Heat-related afflictions fall under the combined label of hyperthermia, a term for high body temperature, he said. The most common forms, in order from least to most serious are heat cramps, heat exhaustion and heat stroke, Catlett said.

A Web site organized by the American Red Cross, National Weather Service, Federal Emergency Management Agency and National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration lists heat cramp symptoms as heavy sweating and painful muscle spasms, typically affecting the legs and sometimes the abdomen.

Heat exhaustion is accompanied by heavy sweating, weakness, cold, pale and clammy skin, and a pulse that feels weak and thread-like, according to the Web site. The site also lists fainting and vomiting as symptoms.

Signs of heat stroke include a body temperature of 106 degrees or higher, hot dry skin, rapid, strong pulse and possible unconsciousness, the Web site states. It describes heat stroke as "a severe medical emergency" requiring emergency medical assistance or transporting the victim to a hospital. "Delay can be fatal," the Web site states.

Neither Yew, Catlett nor Linaburg could remember a fatal incident of heat stroke in recent years. But all agreed that people need to be wary of overdoing strenuous outdoor activity as the weather heats up.

The nature of work performed by firefighters and paramedics puts them among those at risk of succumbing to the heat when responding to emergencies.

"It changes the way we do business," Linaburg said of the heat. "We make sure we have things to hydrate and guys stay hydrated throughout the day."

Shenandoah County's fire and rescue department uses a rehabilitation station that allows firefighters to work emergencies for no more than 10 or 15 minutes at a time before they are pulled for a break, Yew said.

"They come out, they hydrate, their vitals are taken, and we just give them a rest period," he said.

Linaburg, Yew and Catlett recommended the following steps for patients who can't wait for trained help to arrive during heat-related illness.

  • Remove the patient from the heated environment to one with shade or air conditioning.
  • Place cool washcloths in the patient's armpits or on the back of the neck.
  • Cool water is the most effective fluid for relieving patients who have lesser symptoms. Those who are unconscious or experiencing other signs of change in their mental status should not be given anything by mouth.

For preventing heat illnesses, "the most important thing is to just stay well-hydrated," Yew said. "The best thing is just plain water. Some people have the misconception they can hydrate with soft drinks, but they're not as effective when it comes to keeping the body hydrated. It really needs to be water."

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