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From the Heat of Battle: Lessons In Hydration from Wildland Firefighters and Physiologist Fernando Montes

For firefighters, extreme conditions and risk are a part of the job. And in the heat of battle, the danger of dehydration poses one of the greatest threats to health and safety. That’s why the LA County Fire Department is taking their hydration education program to the next level, under the leadership of Fernando Montes, an Exercise Physiologist committed to preparing his crews for the most extreme conditions.

Before coming to the LACoFD Fire Department, Fernando worked in human performance for three decades - including work with top D1 college athletic programs and tactical athletic development for special operations forces. Now, he spends his time educating and sharing lessons with firefighters to properly manage hydration in any situation. By working with the firefighters in a controlled environment, Fernando is able to explore practical strategies that can be used to make good decisions when the heat is on.

Here are some lessons learned from the front lines of firefighting:

Urine Specific Gravity Testing - At the Fire Suppression Aid (FSA) Wildland Academy, a training program for wildland firefighting, Fernando required FSA candidates to complete hydration testing before their daily training began. Urine Specific Gravity status checks and monitoring urine color help track hydration levels across his team. For his team of FSA candidates, starting a long and demanding shift dehydrated can be life threatening. With this testing Fernando is able to, “raise self awareness and start a conversation surrounding hydration status” before they are put in a dangerous position.

Track Your Body Weight - Tracking weight pre- and post-training day is another tactic Fernando uses to ensure his men and women don’t fall victim to dehydration. By the time you lose 2% of your body weight through sweat, your mental and physical performance is already compromised. By measuring body weight, you can track the amount of water being lost through sweat and be sure to replenish fluids before severe dehydration sets in.

Lower Your Core Temperature - One of Fernando’s most innovative hydration techniques comes in the form of the DripDrop Slushie! By lunch time, after a hard morning of training, its important for his men to lower their core temperature and top off their hydration. DripDrop helps replenish electrolytes and fluid lost under extreme conditions. The ice helps lower core body temperature. Plus - who is going to say no to a slushie?

Replace Electrolytes - Electrolyte replacement remains one of the most important factors in staying hydrated in extreme conditions. Making sure to consume beverages with electrolytes, sodium and glucose helps your body absorb more water and replace vital nutrients lost through sweat. After years of relying on sports drinks that “didn’t fill the void for electrolyte replacement," Fernando began working with DripDrop to help keep his team hydrated in the extreme conditions firefighters operate.

A 2007 Orange County Fire Authority study observed that "Improper re-hydration can negatively impact performance and decision-making... critical components of the fire fighting professions" concluding that "dehydration is a modifiable risk." Fernando and others like him are taking hydration safety and awareness to the next level - and helping to make sure these heroes get the job done as safely as possible.