NORMAN — After battling wildfires for four days straight and becoming involved in a full-blown arson investigation, Norman Fire Chief James Fullingim said the resources of his department are being fully utilized.
And then some.
Along with the financial strain, due to overtime and increased use of materials, the wear and tear on the department's firefighters — and the machines they use to do their jobs — is considerable.
“It definitely strains your resources. … Both the men and the equipment are stressed when something like this happens,” Fullingim said. “There are many of them, over the weekend … over a 72-hour period … worked over 50 hours.”
Fullingim said Norman firefighters typically work 12-hour shifts then return 12 hours later.
“In this case, that didn't happen,” he said. “We had many people who were out there for 20-plus hours.”
The wildfires keeping Norman firefighters busy have been intense, destroying scores of structures and roughly 8,000 acres of land. A body found by the Norman Fire Department could lead to more serious charges.
Despite the hazards, Fullingim said only one Norman firefighter had suffered an injury since Friday, a sprained ankle and possibly a broken foot.
He said heat-related issues are rare with Norman firefighters because they are constantly monitored by paramedics when they are in the field.
Indeed, when a small grassfire started burning near the Thunderbird Riding Stables on Monday afternoon, a paramedic was taken to the scene using a four-wheeler. A man carrying a large cooler full of water and Gatorade followed.
“They keep a close eye on them when they're out there,” Fullingim said. “We have EMSTAT with us all the time.”
Departments statewide prepare their firefighters for the stress of wildfires and other emergencies using a variety of tactics.
Oklahoma City Fire Department safety officer Jimmy Schiner said when fighting structure fires with bunker gear and breathing apparatus on, a firefighter may be carrying 60 extra pounds. The extreme summer heat just adds to the issue.
They certainly stress the need to hydrate well before the alarm sounds, he said. But Schiner said they also try to think about a firefighter's core temperature.
Schiner said Oklahoma City firefighters have been allowed since about late July to wear shorts and a shirt made of wicking material under their fire protective suit.
“The fire protection comes from their fire suit,” Schiner said. “So we were better off trying to reduce their core temperatures inside those fire suits.
“We also have chairs that we use during rehab you can stick your forearms in that have cooled water. That is active cooling.
“The difference between passive cooling and active cooling is time. We can reduce your core temperature down faster with active cooling than we would if you just took your gear off and let yourself cool naturally with the air.”
Schiner said they are always looking for new ways to help their firefighters prepare and rehab as they battle fires and the extreme heat.
Ready before the call
Mike Norman prepares for fighting wildfires by stopping by the store each day to buy a bag or two of ice.
He'll pack three to four Gatorades and a half-dozen bottles of water in the ice chest he keeps in the back of his service truck.
By trade, Norman is a diesel mechanic for commercial construction equipment.
But by a commitment to public service, he's the fire chief of the Amber Volunteer Fire Department.
It's obvious that fires bring heat. But while firefighters are battling the heat of the blaze, they also are fighting the effects of triple-digit heat. One way to fight is to hydrate. And while that's a key for any firefighter, sometimes a volunteer firefighter's full-time job may require him to be outside all day. That's the case for Norman.
“That's something I picked up on a long time ago, is hydrating when I first get out of bed and throughout the day, just stick with it,” he said. “Prepare yourself prior to that fire.”
This year, one difference he's noticed is that the fires they've assisted with have been bigger fires with more longevity. Instead of a few hours, they've worked for 14 to 24 hours. There are departments battling fires for several days in a row.
When Norman is working at an incident command post, he'll watch firefighters who return from the fire to determine if they need rest before going back.
“I'm looking at these guys,” he said. “I'm looking at their skin. I'm looking at their pupils.”
He said most seasoned firefighters can recognize these things themselves. But sometimes individuals such as rookies will just keep going, Norman said.
“Overall, we've been able to manage it pretty well,” he said, “and it really starts with really hydrating.”