As New York City wilts under its second brutal heat wave this month, New York City firefighters are on pace to have their busiest year in history. July has been an especially busy month. While the city saw record-breaking temperatures, the fire department has responded to a record number of emergencies in the last couple of weeks. Scorching heat waves present special firefighting challenges.
Almost 500 firefighters suffered heat-related injuries the first week of July, when temperatures hovered near triple digits for days. There were 93 major fires, the highest weekly total the FDNY has seen in 30 years.
One of the firefighters out in the field that week was Shane Clarke. He’s with Engine Company 9 in Chinatown. At 30, he’s one of the youngest and fittest of the “Chinatown Dragonfighters.” Clarke says he can run a marathon in 3.5 hours. But during the dog days of summer, he says he sweats more than anyone in the firehouse. “My parents are from Ireland. I’m Irish,” Clarke says. “I was built for cold, rainy weather. So this 100-plus-degree weather doesn’t really agree with me.”
Now, this isn’t a guy who’s afraid of hot temperatures. He is a firefighter, after all. But battling blazes that can top out at 2,000 degrees gets even more dangerous when you’re contending with severe heat waves. During this month’s first hot spell, Clarke was on the rooftop of 240 East Houston Street, trying to put out towering flames at a five-story brick building. It was almost 100 degrees that day. In that kind of heat, people tire in less than 20 minutes of firefighting. But taking rests just didn’t help much.
“When you’re on the roof, there’s nowhere to hide,” Clarke says, “because the sun is still beating down on you, so even when we were taking breaks, we try to unbutton and cool off, but you know, you’re still contending with the sun and the heat, so you don’t really have much of a chance to cool down.”
In these conditions, the threat of heat stroke and dehydration constantly looms as well as the threat of steam burns – from sweat. The perspiration that builds up underneath the gear can heat up so much, it can literally cook the skin. Firefighters' union president Steve Cassidy says heat stress can be so severe, it can feel exactly like a heart attack. “You become almost paralyzed,” says Cassidy. “Sometimes they can’t even take their own coat off. They need someone to help them get out of their gear.”
That gear is one of the very reasons these firefighters overheat. They have to be fully encapsulated – not a speck of skin can be exposed to the blistering temperatures. Cassidy says that inside a suit during a hot day, a person’s core body temperature can soar to 160 degrees Fahrenheit. And heart rates can reach 220 beats per minute.
At the firehouse, I asked Clarke if I could try on his gear, just to see how long I could last fully encapsulated. “Everything has to be buttoned up,” Clarke says, sealing me into his suit. “No cheating. Don’t skip any buttons.” This thick, heavy coat along with boots, pants, gloves and a radio weigh about 30 pounds. Then Clarke hoists the oxygen tank onto my shoulders. That’s about another 30 pounds. In minutes, my hair is soaked and sweat is rolling down my face. But there’s more gear. A tool bag goes over my right shoulder. And a 50-foot hose lands on my left shoulder. At this point, I’m wearing about 130 pounds of gear. I can barely balance the hose on my shoulder – and you can forget about making me walk even a block with this stuff on.
Imagine going up seven flights of stairs, Clarke says. “The first couple floors fly,” he says, “and then your body starts to catch up, and you’re like, ‘All right, this is getting hard,’ and every step becomes a little heavier. It feels like the 23rd mile of a marathon, you know? Where you start to feel like you’re hitting the wall, but you just gotta keep going.”
On the upside, Clarke says he gets a lot of gratitude from New Yorkers. At the East Houston Street fire, the bartender downstairs from the blaze tried to hand the firefighters ice-cold beers as they descended. But Clarke declined, and chugged a bottle of Gatorade instead.