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Firefighters battle harrowing conditions

September 3, 2009 5:33:08 PM PDT
At the command post, a mobile medical unit is set up to treat everything from bee stings to heart attacks. But poison oak is the most common ailment they treat."People come in with blisters, from when the poison oak burns, all the oils from the poison oak also get released in the air," said Chad McCall, a paramedic.

Staying hydrated is a big priority. While energy drinks are tempting, especially for those getting about four hours of sleep, drinking them is discouraged. That's because the caffeine is a diuretic, and once the energy boost wears down, there's a huge drop off.

Then there's the weight. Web gear, their basic equipment, can weigh up to 30 pounds. Add to that other tools and there's another 20 or so pounds.

"We're carrying several hose packs on our back, could be up to 20, 30 pounds. The extreme heat and weather conditions last week, low humidity, really high heat at 106 degrees out in the fire line for up to 24 hours or more," said Battalion Chief Ken Wiles of Los Angeles County Fire Department, listing just a few obstacles the firefighters are up against.

Just how hot does it get?

"If you were to put on a long sleeve t-shirt, a thick Pendleton shirt, a pair of jeans, boots and then go hang out in 100 degree heat for 40 hours, then that would be a mild equivalent to what we're doing because while we're wearing all of that, we're also working and we are also dealing with the heat of the fire," explains Capt. Mark Whaling of the Los Angeles County Fire Department.

Despite these conditions, most firefighters actually fight for an assignment like this one.

"As tough as it may sound, I don't think there's a firefighter that would rather be anywhere else than doing his job, helping the citizens," said Whaling.

A Harvard study shows the risk of heart attack for firefighters goes up dramatically when battling a blaze versus doing less strenuous work. Researchers say although firefighters spend about 5 percent of their time fighting fires, 32 percent of deaths at fire scenes occur from heart attacks.

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