City, county employees grit teeth through triple digit temps

savwilliams@tidewaterreview.com

During summer's dog days, some Williamsburg police officers are patrolling armed with a special weapon: 7-Eleven coupons.

The department's administrative secretary Deby Middlebrook makes sure officers don't leave the office without the Slurpee coupons and coolers full of water bottles. Both tools can be used to keep officers and community members hydrated during the particularly hot days the Historic Triangle typically experiences in July.

"You can kind of gauge if someone looks a little dehydrated, they're sweating profusely or they're a little out of breath. And as simple as offering them water — they're shocked that we're carrying around water," Williamsburg Police Officer John Heilman said. "I'll try to hit up local neighborhoods and apartment complexes I know have a lot of children, because a lot of the children, they will play through dehydration."

Public bus stops also make for a good place to pass out water, police Maj. Don Janderup said.

"Picture, all throughout the city, some of these bus stops where you sit and the sun is just beating down on you and you're waiting for this bus, and then officers come up, 'Hey, do you need a water or something like that?'" Janderup said. "We've had a lot of good responses on that."

Historic Triangle temperatures risen higher than 95 degrees on eight of the past 14 days, according to The Weather Channel. That heat can take a toll on city and county employees required to work outside.

Preparing for the heat

Although the departments handle the threat of overheating with unique strategies, one common necessity they cited for working outside is hydration.

Jim Hill, the solid waste superintendent of the Jolly Pond Convenience Center, said he encourages staff to stay hydrated and use the center's ice machine often. The amount of time they spend outside in a day is determined by how many people come by the center to drop off refuse.

He said the heat definitely affects the smell of the garbage.

"It's a very hard job, but they do a good job," Hill said.

Heilman insists on getting a jump on the hot weather, if he can help it.

"If today was cool, but you knew tomorrow was going to get in the 100s, you should be pounding water today, because that's what's going to help you the next day," said Heilman. "Once you get dehydrated, and then you start drinking water, it's too late at that point."

Heilman said officers typically wear a polyester uniform with a short sleeve shirt and long pants, boots, a protective vest, body camera and utility belt on their 12-hour-minimum summer shifts. Heilman and Janderup said the extra equipment weighs about 25 pounds.

"When I got home after working a hot day, when you take that vest off, it's like a furnace," Janderup said. Heilman said he has to wring out his undershirt after days outside, and many officers experience skin irritation from sweat crystallizing under their vests.

Heilman said officers spend at least a third of their shifts outside, even if they can periodically get back into their cars between patrols, traffic accidents or emergency situations.

Janderup said the department was considering discussing a change in summer uniforms with their new chief, so officers would have the option of wearing shorts or hats that would provide shade but not trap heat like their current ones.

Quick rotations

The Williamsburg Fire Department intentionally tries to rotate people more frequently during hot days.

For fires, firefighters will work in quick bursts and then switch out with people who have been on break, and for EMS calls, supervisors will try to give teams a break after a few hours by assigning new employees to that duty.

Fire Chief William "Pat" Dent said the equipment that protects first responders from fires weighs about 45 pounds. He said the station is fortunate to have two sets of protective equipment for each firefighter, so they can have clean, dry gear when they need it and that the modern liner allows for more air flow than the heavy jackets and pants used to.

Fire Capt. Bradley Beam, who coordinates EMS responses, said wearing the gear is still like walking outside in full winter clothing, and then taking that into a superheated building.

"Obviously there's a fine line, where we don't want them so protected that they get in dangerous situations, because you may get too far in a building because you're able to withstand more heat," Dent said. "We still want them to feel some heat because they have to use their experience on when it's time for us to retreat or keep going forward."

Cutting the amount of time firefighters work in that heat in a single stretch means the station calls for additional trucks to every fire, so they can rotate out who goes into the blaze. Coming out of the burning building in this heat doesn't provide much relief, though, so they can also choose to bring their cooling truck, which has misting fans and special vests that run cold water through rubber tubes to lower a person's core temperature.

Beam said more than 70 percent of their calls this time of year are for medical assistance to people who are overheated. Firefighters don't wear their full equipment when they answer those calls, but Beam said each call still meant about an hour and a half outside for the responders.

The fire and police departments do their best not just to keep their own employees cool, but to help the community avoid overheating. In addition to the free waters and Slurpee coupons, Dent suggested that people who don't have air conditioning seek out public buildings that can provide refuge from the heat.

Public buildings with air conditioning

Williamsburg Library

Address: 515 Scotland St.

Hours: Monday-Thursday: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m.; Sunday: 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

James City County Library

Address: 7770 Croaker Road

Hours: Monday-Thursday: 10 a.m. to 9 p.m., Friday: 10 a.m. to 6 p.m., Saturday: 10 a.m. to 5 p.m., Sunday: 1 p.m. to 5 p.m.

Quarterpath Recreation Center

Address: 202 Quarterpath Road

Hours: Monday-Friday: 8 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Saturday: 9 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday: 1 p.m. to 8 p.m.

James City County Recreation Center

Address: 5301 Longhill Road

Hours: Monday-Thursday: 6 a.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday: 6 a.m. to 8 p.m.; Saturday: 8 a.m. to 6 p.m.; Sunday: 1 p.m. to 6 p.m.

Abram Frank Jr. Community Center

Address: 8901 Pocahontas Trail

Hours: Monday-Thursday: 4 p.m. to 9 p.m.; Friday: 4 p.m. to 8 p.m.

Upcoming forecast

Saturday

High 98, low 80, sunny

Sunday

High 99, low 77, partly sunny, slight chance of thunderstorms

Monday

High 94, low 75, mostly cloudy with a chance of thunderstorms

Source: National Weather Service

Copyright © 2017, The Virginia Gazette
45°