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Rehab units help firefighters with overexertion, dehydration

In this Aug. 6, 2018 photo, a Yakima firefighter assists a fellow firefighter after battling a structure fire in Yakima, Wash. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)
In this Aug. 6, 2018 photo, a Yakima firefighter assists a fellow firefighter after battling a structure fire in Yakima, Wash. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)
By Donald W. Meyers Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA – When a major fire breaks out, it’s not uncommon to see engines, ladder trucks and a command vehicle on the scene.

But there’s another unit that goes as well. It carries no pumps or hoses, and its crew members don’t go into burning buildings.

They’re called rehabilitation units, and they provide both a mandated and a vital service for firefighters – giving them respite from the heat and weather, fluids and energy snacks, and medical evaluations before going back into the fire.

“It’s a valuable unit for a fire department,” said West Valley Fire Department Capt. Jim Johnston. “We always look for them when they’re out there.”

The rehab units represent an evolution in how firefighters view their jobs, as well as a way for people to serve in the department who might be unable to perform all the duties of a firefighter.

In this Aug. 6, 2018 photo, Selah and Yakima firefighters rest after battling a structure fire in Yakima, Wash. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)
In this Aug. 6, 2018 photo, Selah and Yakima firefighters rest after battling a structure fire in Yakima, Wash. (Amanda Ray / Yakima Herald-Republic)

In the past, rehabilitation was something firefighters did on their own. Someone might bring coffee and sandwiches to them at a fire, but firefighters typically pushed themselves to – and beyond – their physical limits while battling a blaze.

“Traditionally speaking, in the fire service we have a mentality of doing whatever possible to get the job done,” said Lt. Ed Moore, who oversees Yakima’s rehab unit.

But that heroic attitude came with a high price tag for firefighters, who wear at least 45 pounds of gear and protective clothing when they go into a fire.

Nearly one-half of all line-of-duty deaths among firefighters are the result of heart attacks and other cardiac issues, according to the Federal Emergency Management Agency. About 80,000 firefighters are injured annually, with almost 30 percent of them from overexertion and strain, FEMA said.

A firefighter in full gear at a structure fire can lose almost 3 pounds of water weight in the first 15 minutes, Moore said. While the gear protects them from fire, it also makes it harder for their bodies to naturally cool down.

At a recent fire in West Valley, three firefighters had to be treated for heat exhaustion.

The National Fire Protection Association established a standard requiring firefighters to rest for at least 20 minutes after either depleting two 30-minute air bottles or one 45-minute bottle. The standard was codified into the Washington Administrative Code in the mid-2000s, making rehab units a requirement.

But many departments in the area had already started using them.

Moore said Yakima’s unit started when the department absorbed Fruitvale’s fire department in the 1990s and used its volunteer reserves to staff a support vehicle. It expanded into a full rehab unit in the mid-2000s, providing firefighters with a chance to get out of the elements, cool down and replace fluids and calories lost while working.

Some units, such as the East Valley Fire Department, use fans and misters to help firefighters cool down.

The units also come out in the winter, giving firefighters a chance to get out of the cold and warm up.

Lt. Andy Babcock, with Yakima County Fire District 5, said the district has used a rehab unit for at least 17 years.

“We have learned and have evolved in doing the job safer,” Babcock said.

It also means that more firefighters are required to be at a call, so firefighters can rotate through their rehab units, Moore and others said. The units have their own vehicles.

West Valley Fire Department, which implemented its rehab unit in 2009, uses a former airport shuttle bus that carries food and drinks and has a restroom firefighters can use. A second vehicle is used to refill air bottles.

Yakima’s rehab is a Ford semi-truck stocked with pop-up shelters, chairs, food, beverages and medical equipment, including a monitor to measure a firefighter’s oxygen and carbon- monoxide levels. Moore said the equipment helps spot medical problems at a fire scene early.

Fire District 5 is replacing its trailer unit with one in an old mobile dental clinic it obtained free from the Navy. When it goes into service in September, it will provide firefighters with a restroom and kitchen, as well as other supplies.

Another benefit of the units is that they provide a volunteer opportunity for people. West Valley and Yakima use volunteers in their reserves to staff the units. Fire District 5 also uses volunteers, as well as firefighters who may be on light duty due to injury.

Moore, with Yakima’s fire department, said it is a great opportunity for those who want to be involved in the community, and the department is accepting applications to bolster the unit’s seven members.

“Our full-time staff appreciates the efforts of our volunteer staff,” Moore said.

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