The last few weeks have been a stark reminder of just how unpredictable the work of the Fire and Rescue Service can be. The fine summer has lasted much longer than the usual week this year and as such there has been a well-publicised spate of wildfires across the United Kingdom.
Such arduous and protracted incidents take their toll on the body and as a professional firefighter it’s vitally important you’re doing all you can to remain fighting fit for as long as possible.
Sweating is of course the body’s rather ingenious reaction to an increase in core body temperature and in the right conditions can be extremely effective at cooling the body down. However when we sweat we’re releasing much more than stored water from our bodies. Sweat contains vital electrolytes such as potassium, calcium, magnesium and chloride all of which work to maintain the right balance of fluids within and around all of the body’s cells and organs. An excessive loss of these electrolytes (due to dehydration for example) can have a serious effect on the function of both the heart and brain. It goes without saying then that it’s of vital importance that as well as restoring water levels by drinking we also replace electrolytes (either through food, rehydration supplements or isotonic drinks).
Dehydration causes a reduction in blood volume which adversely affects blood flow around the body (affecting all those muscle groups you’re using to perform your task). The results of this include an increase in body temperature and heart rate, a reduction in sweat and an increased reliance on muscle glycogen stores. All of these factors have a negative impact on your productivity and leave you feeling drained and unable to focus.
The human body is an absolutely incredible machine that can fine tune itself thousands of times a day to restore, maintain and adjust balances within. The reason our urine becomes dark and smelly when we’re dehydrated is the perfect example of this. As we start to become dehydrated our body is able to draw more water through the kidneys and this leads to the urine we pass having a much stronger concentration of ammonia. This process actually relies on sodium (God those electrolytes are good!)
Our body wants to maintain a constant state, where it is comfortable and happy to be. This process is known as homeostasis and is regulated by various hormones within the body.
Pre-hydration, is that even a word?
We in the Fire Service don’t have the luxury of knowing at what point during our shift (or whilst on call) we will be expected to carry out physical exercise for prolonged periods and therefore unlike in endurance sport it’s hard to properly pre-hydrate (supply the body, in good enough time the fluids and fuel it needs to perform). What we can however do is monitor the amount of fluids we take in, avoid excessive amounts of diuretic drinks such as tea and coffee and make sure we’ve eaten a balanced and nutritious meal.
Tired old cliché
It would seem that yet again prevention is better than a cure.
As professional firefighters we have an obligation to ourselves, each other and the communities we serve to ensure we’re able to give our all at any point. A good starting point in ensuring we do exactly that is to remain adequately hydrated whilst on duty.