Heat Stress in the Tactical Environment

8 July 1999
 by Scott Powers

Taking care of your body in a tactical or hunting environment can sometimes take a back seat to your immediate goals.  There is not a soldier or hunter, police officer or support person who has not put the mission before his or her bodily needs at least once in their career.  A bruised knee, a twisted ankle, even an open wound can be ignored depending on the severity of the situation and the injury.  This kind of minor damage can be easily assessed and treated or ignored depending on time constraints and an individual's ability to deal with pain.  The main point is that because these wounds are physical in appearance or provide immediate pain, one becomes aware of them quickly and acts accordingly.  There is one form of physical damage that creeps up on you without a lot of fanfare.  It is easily ignored until too late.  It can cripple you and place your mission at great risk of failure.  Heat Stress.  This form of heat induced ailment can easily be avoided with a little forethought, but once you have let the symptoms creep up on you without treatment, you will be down for the count or worse, dead.

Whether you are a student at a firearms training facility, a police officer on the job or a troop in the field, keeping hydrated should be paramount on your list of preventative care and health maintenance.  You can not operate if you are unconscious.  Lives may depend on your ability and clear thinking.  We seldom speak of heat stress here on Sniper Country and we apologize for not highlighting this less than glamorous topic.  It is easy to write at length about a new and exiting piece of equipment or a new training technique, but too often we ignore the physical end of the spectrum, assuming most people know what is needed to keep them effective on the job.  As the fourth of July weekend ends and my local area is coming out of a record high temperature spike, heat stress seems like a good topic to broach for our readers.

Heat Stress can be one of a series of conditions where the body is under stress from overheating.  It includes heat cramps, heat exhaustion, heat rash, and heat stroke.  Each produces physical symptoms that range from profuse sweating, dizziness, delirium and collapse.  Heat stress comes from many sources including; high temperatures, heavy workloads, lack of proper hydration and even the type of clothing being worn.

Heat Stroke is insidious.  The victim often overlooks the signs.  He may assume he is feeling a little slow or sluggish simply from the heat of his environment, but with profuse sweating he may feel sufficiently cooled by the evaporation of his precious fluids.  If he is not taking active measures to replace these, he will become confused or unable to concentrate.  Left untended, he will experience more sever symptoms such as fainting or complete collapse.  If heat signs occur in the field and you recognize them, move to the cover of a shaded area and drink water.  If you recognize the symptoms in a member of your team, immediately get their attention and treat them.  They may not understand what is happening to them and only feel a little off their game.  Make them drink water even if they do not want it.  Hydration and shade are the best and often only medicine in the field.  If not taken care of the victim will soon find it difficult to breathe and will lose consciousness.

Some people are more prone to Heat Stress than others.  Younger individuals and those in excellent physical condition are less likely to experience stress, at least not as quickly as other, less physically fit troops.  Individuals with heart, lung or kidney disease, diabetes and those on medications are more likely to experience heat stress issues.  Diet pills, sedatives, tranquilizers and CAFFEINATED drinks all accelerate the likely of heat stress, as does ALCOHOL.  While you might not think a team member is on any of the above, you simply can not know.  People do self-destructive things as a matter of course and if the mission is important, you’d better be aware of the possibilities.  While the likelihood of a soldier in combat taking these seems slim, a police officer may have taking something listed above as a matter of course.  Caffeine is an obvious villain and one accepted as a daily starter.  Diet pills?  You bet.  Without meaning to be a chauvinist or starting a war of the sexes, women often rely on these little items without informing their husbands OR partners on the job.  If you know your partner has perceived problems with his or her weight, make sure they are aware of the affects of dietary pills when the temperature rises.

You are more likely to experience heat stress when first exposed to a new environment or when your job is physically demanding.  It takes time to acclimate to a hot environment and if an officer has not been spending much time out of doors in the summer heat he or she may find themselves on the back side of the power curve on their first call out in the heat wave.  When temperatures approach 90 degrees F you must be especially aware.  In addition to temperature an increase in humidity, a decrease in air movement and a lack of shade from direct radiant heat will all affect the potential for Heat Stress.

There are some precautions you can take to avoid becoming a victim.  Learn to recognize the symptoms of Heat Stress.  Pace yourself if possible.  Take adequate rest periods – in shade – if the mission allows.  Wear loose clothing to allow for better ventilation.  And STAY HYDRATED!  Drink plenty of water.  In a hot environment the body requires more water than typically needed to satisfy your thirst.  In other words, drink MORE than you think you need!  Hydrate BEFORE the mission.  Drink as much as you can hold over a period of days if possible.  The standard eight glasses a day will not cut it.  Top off at every opportunity before and during the mission.  Make sure you take sufficient water along on the mission.  When it is hot out of doors water is more important than food, so pack accordingly.  Leave unessential items behind and take extra liquid.

The common forms of Heat Stress that you may experience if you do not take care are as follows:

In summery, most heat casualties are avoidable.  Common sense and an awareness of the issues are usually all it takes for an individual to keep themselves in healthy order when in the field in hot weather.  A little preventive maintenance is all it takes to avoid the worst symptoms of Heat Stress.  It is better to be a hound about the issue than simply ignore it or say, “it can not happen to me.”  Keep hydrated, keep aware and watch your buddy.

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