Inside Report: Heat of summer swells risk for firefighters

As exhausted Baton Rouge firefighters gathered under a tree following the rescue of 13 people — 10 adults and three children — from inside a 72-unit apartment building last Tuesday, department officials kept a watchful eye on their men, looking for signs of heat-related illnesses on the sweltering July day.

According to a 2011 study by the U.S. Fire Administration, 25 percent of firefighter injuries were caused by stress and overexertion.

The heat outside the building was one of the main reasons the department sounded a general alarm that attracted more than 60 firefighters in 15 trucks to the Savoy Plaza Apartments at 520 Wooddale Blvd., Baton Rouge Fire Chief Ed Smith said.

“Heat is a definite factor,” Smith said, adding that sounding the general alarm is rare for the department. “We try to make sure we have a number of people to rest and rehab and have a fresh crew ready to go.”

Outside on the grounds in front of the building, firefighters shed their air tanks and bunker gear under a large tree, trying to cool off after searching smoke-filled hallways on three stories of the apartment building, looking for stragglers who stayed behind despite the blaring fire alarms and the dense fog of black and brown smoke inside the hallways.

Firefighters ferried coolers of water and sports drinks to a table set up for firefighters to rehydrate themselves. Paramedics from the East Baton Rouge Parish Emergency Medical Services also were on hand in case one of the firefighters suffered from heatstroke.

Mark Miles, a spokesman who has been with the department for more than 20 years and a captain before becoming a spokesman, said the department takes the possibility of firefighters succumbing to heat-related illnesses very seriously.

Miles said once officials are sure everyone is out of the building after battling a fire, the captains as well as members of the department’s safety division check each member of their crew, looking for signs of heatstroke.

Any firefighter showing signs of heatstroke is sent to the EMS crew at the scene, Miles said.

When firefighters are called to a reported fire and the first captain on the scene reports it is a working house fire, two more trucks are dispatched — one for extra manpower in case the first crew has to pull out to take a break because of the heat, while the second one is on standby in case a firefighter goes down and needs to be rescued. That second truck is called the Rapid Intervention Team.

The St. George Fire Department has a similar setup of sending extra crews to working fires for extra manpower and having supervisors keep an eye on firefighters for heat-related symptoms during and after fires, spokesman Eldon Ledoux said.

He said more often than not, fire department officials will sound a second alarm just to get more firefighters on the scene.

“It is a major concern on the fire scene, and more firefighters succumb on a fire scene to heat-stress-related issues and cardiac issues than injuries sustained from fighting a fire,” Ledoux said.

Even though the firefighters have emergency medical training and know the signs of heat-related illnesses, Ledoux said most will ignore the signs while battling the fire because they are so focused on the job at hand.

That is why they have no choice when a captain or supervisor tells them to take a break or get some medical treatment at the tent set up for that purpose.

Ryan Broussard covers police and fire for The Advocate. He can be reached at rybroussard@theadvocate.com.