A correctional guide to staying cool and safe in summer heat
How to avoid heat exhaustion and stay comfortable during summer heat in corrections
Summer is upon us! For most people this means vacations, barbeques, and camping trips. For many correctional staffers, however, it also means sweaty days spent on the prison yard watching inmates. It means wearing a stab- or bullet-resistant vest and enough equipment to arm a small nation in a uniform you would swear was designed for arctic exploration.
The risks of heat exposure are often overlooked until things go horribly wrong; especially for officers in heavy gear. Considering the work we do, it is not always easy to cool ourselves down, or to take a break in the shade of a tree. Yet the danger of not doing so is very high as there are several serious conditions that can occur when we overwork our bodies in the summer heat.
Before I begin to discuss tactics for staying safe and comfortable beneath summer heat, let me make something very, very clear: I am not a medical professional. My information has been gathered from training I received at a high desert prison and from the Mayo clinic guidelines. If you do not feel well you should contact your physician or call 911 immediately.
Heat exhaustion: How trouble in the sun begins
According to the Mayo Clinic, some of the symptoms of heat exhaustion are:
- Feeling faint or dizzy
- Heavy sweating
- Rapid, weak heartbeat
- Low blood pressure
- Cool, moist, pale skin
- Low-grade fever
- Heat cramps
- Dark-colored urine
The last symptom has always been a great measure of hydration. When using the restroom, make it a point to pay attention to the color of your urine. The clearer the urine, the better hydrated you are.
Buy a hydration bladder and use it
Hydration is key to the prevention of heat exhaustion. Your chances of getting heat exhaustion go down immensely with proper hydration. If you work at an institution - or in the field - where temperatures tend to get high, it is a good idea to invest in a hydration bladder.
The most common unit sold is the CamelBak ThermoBak. I am not one to endorse a company or product, but by far they seem to be the leader in the field. Having this unit strapped to you may add a little weight, but the convenience of hydrating while keeping your hands free is worth it. You will be able to drink without breaking your concentration from what is going on around you.
If it happens, here’s how to stop it
If you notice the signs of heat exhaustion, the Mayo clinic recommends you do the following:
- Get the person out of the sun and into a shady or air-conditioned location.
- Lay the person down and elevate their legs and feet slightly.
- Loosen or remove the person's clothing.
- Have the person drink cool water or other nonalcoholic beverage without caffeine.
- Cool the person by spraying or sponging him or her with cool water and fanning.
- Monitor the person carefully.
Luckily, we often have the luxury of having medical personnel close by. Notify medical staff immediately if you suspect heat exhaustion. Heat exhaustion can quickly become heatstroke, so it is critical we catch it early.
Heat stroke: When the sun can kill
The symptoms of heat stroke are much more severe, yet the term is often over-used. Heat stroke is a life threatening illness that should be taken seriously. If you suspect you or someone else may have it, it is critical you contact medical professionals immediately.
The symptoms of heat stroke are:
- Rapid heartbeat; check the persons pulse at the wrist and count the beats for fifteen seconds. Multiply this number by four. If the resulting heart rate is higher than 100, the heartbeat is considered rapid.
- Rapid and shallow breathing
- Cessation of sweating
- Irritability, confusion or unconsciousness
- Feeling dizzy or lightheaded
- Fainting, which may be the first sign in older adults
Combating heat stroke
If you suspect heat stroke, take the following steps:
- Move the person out of the sun and into a shady or air-conditioned space.
- Call 911 or emergency medical help.
- Cool the person by covering him or her with damp sheets or by spraying with cool water.
- Direct air onto the person with a fan or newspaper.
- Have the person drink cool water or other nonalcoholic beverage without caffeine
You might be tough, but the sun is tougher
There are numerous online resources that will help educate you on these two serious conditions. If you are a supervisor, it is your job to ensure the safety of your staff. Monitor your officers carefully for these symptoms.
One truth about many officers is that they will tend to try and “tough it out” as long as they can. An officer myself, I recently tore my Achilles Tendon at work, yet I stayed to finish some tasks for hours until medical staff finally convinced me that my ankle was not just twisted. I was convinced that I could ice my foot and ankle and walk it off. I was wrong. You will find this same problem with many other officers. They will tell you they are okay, while suffering the symptoms and signs of heat exhaustion. It is critical that supervisors monitor them and allow them to take a break. If you can relieve the officer for a little bit and allow him or her to cool off somewhere, you may be saving their life.
Make your own mist
At the desert institution where I was assigned, “misters” were installed in areas where officers were posted to watch the yard. It was a simple setup of PVC pipe with small holes drilled into it. A regular hose was attached to this setup and controlled by the observation gunner. This was a nice place to cool off when it was hot. It was a nice mist, not powerful enough to soak your clothing, but enough to cool you down. It is a low-budget solution that can avoid a lot of problems later.
There are a lot of products made for those of us that wear vests. I have seen officers place sports ice packs between their vest and outer uniform. I even saw one product that hooks up into your vehicle’s A/C and goes directly into your uniform to keep you cool.
Take the time to take care of yourselves. Enjoy this summer, but be careful. Use these tips to watch your family when you are out and about also; especially the young ones. If you keep yourself hydrated, you keep yourself in the game.
Just to be clear, beer does not count. Alcoholic beverages can actually make things worse, as will sodas or any drink with caffeine. Have some water handy.
If you have any tips to stay cool this summer, feel free to post them below. Remember to vest up and stay safe out there!