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Summer is here and heat dangers this season are real

by Nick Stubbs
Thunderbolt staff writer

Senior Master Sgt. Eugene Niles takes a reading from a weather station that mearures temperature and humity to determine the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature index.

photo by Nick Stubbs

At 10 a.m. Monday a menacing force descended over MacDill. Stifling and powerful as an Anaconda and omnipresent, there was no escaping it and even the most fit Airman was prone to become a victim of this summertime beast.

The mark of this beast was 91.4, which is the Wet Bulb Globe Temperature, a measurement used by the 6th Air Mobility Wing Environmental/Readiness Element to index heat on base. A 90 constitutes level three, or extreme, and it is the most dangerous level in the scale. That was achieved by just 10 a.m., and it is indicative of the extreme heat we've been seeing the past couple of weeks.

"It's (the heat) here earlier this year," said Senior Master Sgt. Eugene Niles, noncommissioned officer in charge with Environmental. "It is very hot and everyone has to take precautions."

Sergeant Niles and those in his office monitor the Wet Bulb index beginning May 1 each year. A tripod with an ambient air thermometer, glass tube for capturing moisture and another thermometer for measuring the radiant heat of the sun is placed on the sidewalk outside the Environmental office, just behind the base hospital. It usually is noon before the conditions reach "extreme," but lately it is not unusual for things to get off to a hot start early. For those who follow the "feels-like" temperatures, we've seen several days this season of 105 degrees or above.

"The other day at 8 a.m. it was 82 degrees outside," said Sergeant Niles. "Right now we're seeing it awfully hot early in the day."

And it's been staying hot longer into the day. The record Wet Bulb reading this summer was last Friday, when a 95.9 was recorded at noon. By 4 p.m. when measuring stops for the day, it remained well into the extreme danger zone, said Sergeant Niles.

"It means people have to be particularly aware when exercising," he said. A former track athlete and someone who has run in climates around the world, Sergeant Niles said he is used to the exertion and can handle the heat well, as can many others who have acclimated to the Florida temperatures, but he warns those new to the area and new to running to ramp up slowly.

"You have to work your way up to it slowly," said Sergeant Niles. "If you don't have the experience running in this kind of heat, you have to be very careful even if you run early or late in the day."

Lots of fluids are the best way to guard against heat related illness, he said. Under an extreme warning, guidelines call for drinking 1.5 quarts per hour when outside working.

Sergeant Niles said he easily consumes two quarts of sports drink after his morning runs.

Environmental passes on the hourly Wet Bulb indexes to the command post each day. The information is then sent out base-wide and commanders can adjust outdoor work schedules to ensure safety for all. Those working on the flight line are of particular concern, because the heat reflected off the concrete and pavement can be so much greater.

Sergeant Niles said he has not heard of anyone collapsing in the heat thus far this season, but it will be another couple of months before the base is out of the danger period.

The three Wet Bulb levels and guidelines for work are:

Level 1: Caution - Wet Bulb is 77 to 86. Increase fluid intake and the outdoor work/rest cycle should be 45 minutes followed by 15 minutes rest.

Level 2: Warning - Wet Bulb is 81 to 89. Increase fluid intake and outdoor work/rest cycle should be 30 minutes followed by 30 minutes of rest.

Level 3: Extreme - Wet Bulb of 90-plus. Drink at least 1.5 quarts of water per hour. Work/rest cycle should be 15 minutes followed by 45 minutes rest. Staying indoors is advised.

Warning signs of being in the grip of heat illness include heat cramps, exhaustion, headache and worst of all, heat stroke, in which the body temperature rises and unconsciousness and even death can result.

The key is to recognize the onset of heat stress before it overtakes you, said Sergeant Niles. It also is a good idea to look out for one another for signs of overdoing it and to focus outdoor exercise in the mornings as early as possible.

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