By Kathi Bliss
Just days past the official beginning of summer, Central Texas is already experiencing record-breaking heat; along with triple-digit temperatures comes concern about heat-related illness and fire dangers, worries that grow as summer weather bears down on the region.
For several days now, temperatures have soared past the century mark, with no sign of a significant break in the weather on the horizon. As Caldwell County bakes under the burning sun, medical providers and emergency services throughout the community brace themselves for the rash of heat-related illnesses and dangers they know are coming.
“One thing people need to be aware of is that it’s not just the 100-degree heat that we have to be worried about,” Lockhart/Caldwell County EMS Director Aaron Langford warned on Tuesday. “People only really think about it when the temperatures go over 100, but any summertime heat is a cause for concern.”
Langford said his department generally responds to two or three heat-related calls per week, and reminds area residents and patients that a few simple steps can make the difference between being hot and being overheated
First and foremost, he said, it is important for people working or playing outdoors to remember to stay hydrated. Electrolyte balance, he said, is key to the body’s total health, and severe imbalances can lead to serious health problems including loss of consciousness and seizures, and have consequences up to and including death.
“Every year, there are one or two people that actually do die from heat-related emergencies,” he said. “It’s something that people really need to take seriously.”
In addition to staying hydrated, he said, people can take other simple steps, such as scheduling outdoor work in the early morning hours, or in the evenings, and taking frequent breaks indoors while working or playing outside.
Although the early stages of a heat-related emergency can easily be reversed, he said, residents should not be afraid to call 9-1-1 if they believe they are suffering from a heat-related illness
“We don’t want people to feel silly, or to be afraid to call us,” he noted. “We welcome people stopping by the station and asking questions, but if you are really concerned, call us and let us come to you, instead of getting in the car and driving 15 miles into town. It’s what we’re here for, and we’d much rather see you and treat you before the problem gets too serious.”
While everyone should take heat-related illnesses seriously, those who should be most concerned are the elderly and the very young, those with chronic medical conditions and the obese, according to Dr. Randall Kirtley.
“There are even people who take certain medications that are more susceptible to heat-related illness,” Kirtley said. “So patients should be aware of the medications they take and whether those medicines might make them more vulnerable to the heat.”
Kirtley said common-sense measures can go a long way in helping patients avoid heat-related illnesses such as heat exhaustion and the more severe heat stroke.
He, like Langford, recommended working outdoors in only the morning or evening hours, wearing loose-fitting clothing that covers most of the skin, and making sure to be well-hydrated.
“You should even pre-hydrate when you know you’re going to be outside,” he said. “And of course, with the holiday weekend, people are going to be outside at parties, barbecuing and drinking beer. Alcohol can play a part in dehydration, so while I’m not going to say ‘don’t drink beer at your barbecue,’ I’m going to say it’s important to remember to drink plenty of water, as well.”
Kirtley warned would-be patients to be on the lookout for early signs of heat-related emergencies; symptoms and illnesses can generally be reversed by taking simple steps to cool the body back down before medical attention is required, he said.
“It can start with something as simple as a rash, dizziness or cramps,” he said. “If you start feeling those symptoms, you should get out of the sun and the heat, and go somewhere cool and rest.
Later stages of heat-related illness, he said, can resemble a virus, and include fatigue, headaches and nausea. He said he often treats patients who believe they have a virus or stomach flu, but his first question, generally, is whether or not his patients have been out in the heat.
The most serious symptoms can be observed when patients stop sweating altogether, lose consciousness or begin having increased heart rates or seizures.
“You can reach a certain point where your body stops regulating its own temperature,” he said. “Some people don’t actually stop sweating, but when you do, that means that your body isn’t regulating itself anymore, and that’s when things get very dangerous.”
Both Kirtley and Langford agree that elderly patients are those who most often experience complications from heat-related illnesses, and both attribute that fact to a permeating belief among older populations – that they can continue to work and expose themselves to heat, because “it’s what they have always done.” That notion, Langford said, can be extremely dangerous.
“Many times, an [elderly patient] will be outside mowing the lawn at 2 p.m., thinking that because that’s what he’s always done, that he still can, and thinking that it has to get done right then,” he said. “And what sometimes makes it worse, is that many of the elderly in our community don’t have air conditioning, because they think they don’t need it.”
Kirtley said it is very important for neighbors to keep an eye on the elderly residents nearby, as well as small children and the mentally disabled.
“Especially with kids and people with mental difficulties, they don’t know or recognize there’s a problem, and sometimes they can’t express it,” Kirtley said. “It matters that we watch out for each other.”
One way in which the community can “look out for one another” is through the City of Lockhart’s fan distribution program.
Each summer, the City of Lockhart collects and distributes fans to the elderly, disabled and otherwise income-restrained, in an effort to help them battle the heat through the summer. Unfortunately, as of Tuesday afternoon, City Manager Vance Rodgers said that there were no fans in stock; every available box fan has been distributed, he said.
However, the City will accept donations of new or gently-used, clean box fans; donations, Rodgers suggested, are welcome to help the program continue serving those who need it most.
The program will become even more important as the summer drags on. Already on Wednesday morning, the Electric Reliability Council of Texas (ERCOT) said the state’s electricity consumption had reached record highs, offering a stark reminder of last year’s rolling blackouts.
Though many realize that air conditioning is all but necessary in Central Texas in the summertime, consumers are reminded to take steps to reduce their power usage, particularly during the peak hours of the day, from 3 – 7p.m.
Among those steps, customers are asked to set their thermostats at 78 degrees or higher, and if possible to avoid usage of other large appliances, such as dishwashers, washing machines and dryers during the peak hours of the day.
Stress on the state’s electrical grid could force what ERCOT refers to as “load sheds,” or “rolling brown-outs,” meaning that portions of the power grid are turned off for periods of 5 – 15 minutes to reduce electricity usage.
Lockhart experienced several days of “rolling brown-outs” last summer, and although the actions have not yet been ordered by ERCOT, the possibility remains open. In general, electric providers only receive moments of notice before a “rolling brown-out,” and are often unable to notify customers before cutting power.