Six years ago was a first in firefighter Ashley Losch’s career.
Her Glendale fire station was responding to a structure fire in the middle of the afternoon in the middle summer when the temperature was 118 degrees. She had worked the day before so she was already tired and slightly dehydrated, and she was working a 12-hour shift on the truck on this day.
Rolling up on scene, she hopped off the truck to “take the plugs,” when a firefighter connects a line to a hydrant. The crew quickly learned that the apartment involved was around the corner, forcing Ms. Losch to detach the hose and re-hook it to another hydrant, all while suited up in her turnout gear.
Then, as firefighters do, she ran to battle the blaze.
And got dizzy.
“I never have had that happen before,” she recalled during a break between calls June 12 at Glendale Fire Department Station 159, 17159 N. 63rd Ave.
Her “bottles were ringing,” which indicates when a firefighter’s airpacks are at only 25 percent of air remaining. She cleared out to get more air and, on this day, to cool off.
She hustled down the stairs, removed her gear, and doused herself with water.
“It’s HOT. It’s just hot,” she remembered of summertime firefighting conditions then and now. “And you have to give your body that time to really recover. It was the first time in my career that I was like, ‘I’m gonna pass out.’ It’s THAT hot.”
Statistically speaking, July is Glendale’s hottest month, with a daily average high of 107. August isn’t much better at 105, and things start to “cool off” in September, when the daily high average is merely 100.
A typical structure fire produces a blaze between 800 and 1,200 degrees. And firefighters are packing on 60 to 80 pounds of turnout gear, never mind the summer temps. The gear is heavy, yes, but the biggest issue, says Station 159 firefighter Alexander Yates, is how the gear, by design, expels no heat from the inside.
“You’re completely encased,” said the five-year firefighter.
Acclimating to the extreme summer conditions of firefighting is part of the job, even when a firefighter isn’t on duty. Things like hiking in the afternoon while wearing long sleeves is a common practice for firefighters in their daily lives to prepare for the summer season’s intense shifts. Back at the station in between calls, crews run through skills courses that involve flipping tires, swinging sledgehammers and carrying hose -- all during the day’s high heat, and while wearing their gear.
“You’re building yourself up to that heat tolerance,” Mr. Yates added. “We’re in our gear a lot. But summer, even being young in our 20s and 30s, a fire at 2 in the afternoon in the summer takes a toll on you.”
Once on a hot summertime scene, crews rely on one another to assess the best fire fight -- and to watch each other’s backs.
“That comes with having good experienced guys; guys that have been on the job, that have been around and seen some things,” said Station 159 Captain John Burch, who has 17 years on and was promoted to captain a year ago. “You want to be able to trust your guys.”
Monsoon season unofficially started June 15, so the added risk of dry lightning strikes also will be part of the station’s summer routine. Not that there’s anything resembling a typical shift.
“Three weeks ago I went on six fires in a week, and then this week (on a Friday) we’ve had nothing,” Ms. Losch said. “You never know, and that’s the beauty of the fire department.”
Crews also aren’t only responding to fires in the heat, by the way, and preparing for the summer months is the responsibility of residents as much as firefighters. Calls range from everything from mountain rescues to rescuing stranded hikers, as Mr. Yates cautioned.
“You can’t just wake up one day and go hike Camelback at 2 in the afternoon in June if you’re not ready for it.”