Managing Heat Stress in Firefighters with Modern Temperature Technology

Managing Heat Stress in Firefighters with Modern Temperature Technology

Fire and rescue personnel face a wide variety of extreme, challenging, and unpredictable environments.

When responding to a fire-related incident, firefighters layer up in personal protective equipment (PPE) that can weigh in excess of 10kg. Additionally, firefighters may need to add further equipment, such as breathing apparatus, which alone weighs an additional 15kg on top of their existing PPE.

 Even before entering an environment of extreme heat, the internal temperatures from underneath this equipment can become a serious challenge which must be monitored.

 The health and safety team at Suffolk Fire and Rescue acknowledged this and, in a bid to help better manage heat stress in firefighters, decided to launch their own investigation.



Risk Assessing Heat Exposure

There are many risks to consider when keeping firefighters safe while they do their jobs. One of these is exposure to high temperatures — how hot can firefighters get, how long can they withstand these conditions, and how often can their bodies undertake this stress?

Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service currently work towards the ‘1-3-9 rule’: firefighters can be exposed to high temperatures no more than once a day, three times a week or nine times a month. But what if, by obtaining data about the specific temperatures reached inside firefighter suits, clearer limits could be established about safely managing heat stress?

This is what Andrew Message, Fire and Public Safety Directorate and Health and Safety Manager at Health Suffolk Fire and Rescue Service, set out to learn by conducting an experiment using ETI’s ThermaData Lite Loggers.

“We wanted to try and better understand the risks,” Andrew says. “1-3-9 is a good proxy, but maybe we could find that it’s safe to do four wears a week provided we don’t exceed a certain number of minutes with a temperature of 40 °C inside the suit.”

To find out exactly what temperatures firefighters’ bodies are battling, they needed to find a way to monitor inside their suits whilst carrying out training at high temperatures.



Monitoring Body Temperatures in Extreme Heat

Improvements in technology mean it’s now easy to automatically monitor temperatures over a period of time and examine the results after or in real-time using an external device. Data loggers record temperatures at programmed intervals. Afterwards, the device can be connected to your computer, and the data downloaded, viewed and shared.

However, accurately monitoring core body temperatures isn’t easy, especially in the extreme conditions of firefighting. Anything that touches the firefighters’ skin runs the risk of burning them.

“If something’s touching your skin instead of air, the heat is going to transfer a bit easier,” Andrew explains. “ If you’re wearing tight-fitting clothing, it’s more likely to burn you.”

Whilst invasive temperature monitoring systems are available, they are not always practical, so Andrew settled on monitoring the air temperature inside the firefighters’ suits. For this, they needed to find a data logger that could withstand high temperatures without melting, exploding, or leaking and that wouldn’t burn the skin of the fighters.



ThermaData Lite Logger

The ETI ThermaData Lite Logger was perfect for their needs. Compact and encased in polyethylene, it can measure temperatures up to 85 °C.

“Your data logger was so good because we could be confident that it could withstand and measure high temperatures,” Andrew says. “And the PDF reports and the ability to extract all of the data into a CSV.”

The logger is supplied with free PC software, which enabled Andrew to analyse their results and confirm their prediction: the air inside the firefighters’ suits was reaching around 40 °C.

“It helps us understand that actually being underneath all of that firefighting kit is quite difficult and quite warm. It’s the same as being in a heat plume in Greece whilst working quite hard and expending a lot of energy,” Andrew says. “That helps us to make decisions and manage the risk of heat stress in our firefighters.”

“Having reliable and easy-to-use equipment to manage the safety of our employees is essential”, Andrew adds.




Accessible Technology for Businesses

The temperature inside the firefighters’ suits isn’t the only one that needs monitoring and controlling during training.

Training often takes place inside shipping containers, where firefighters practise lifesaving exercises like Search and Rescue at extremely high temperatures. They need to monitor the air temperature inside the containers to ensure they don’t get too high and put the firefighters at serious risk.

To do this, they inserted a temperature probe through a hole in the containers, which connected to the ETI Therma Q Bluetooth thermometer sitting on the outside. A team member could then simultaneously monitor the temperatures inside all of the containers at once using a single phone or tablet.

Introducing Bluetooth technology into a business can sometimes seem intimidating for less tech-savvy staff. But with simple systems and user-friendly interfaces like the ETI TD Link app, it can require little to no training to get started.

“We’ve got a firefighter with limited IT skills who doesn’t work with computers very often to use the equipment,” Andrew says. “They set it up themselves, monitored it and used it in their safe system of work.”

“They love it because you don’t have to mess around with computers,” he continues. “For people with less frequent use of computers, something that involves apps and phones and things they already understand; they found that really useful.”



Results Taking Action

Thanks to the implementation of our data loggers and Bluetooth thermometers, Suffolk Fire and Rescue have been able to take their testing, training, and quality of life for firefighters to new heights. Heat stress is an ongoing battle for all fire services and their fighters due to the evident need for specialist PPE and often additional add-ons. Thanks to the application of these instruments into the tests, more adjusting and simulated experiments can take place to better inform best practice safety measures throughout the force.

 Andrew concludes: “We are literally playing with fire, so we have to expose people to risks so they can be safe when your house is on fire and they go and put it out. But we can’t expose them to so much risk that we harm them. Temperature monitoring helps us manage that risk.”



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