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Beat desert heat, stay safe this summer

7 May 2010 | Cpl. Monica C. Erickson

It is something like getting punched in the face, said Bob Piirainen, the Combat Center’s traffic and motorcycle safety program manager, as he described walking outside during the summer months in the desert.

The desert can reach extreme temperatures, as high as 125 degrees, throughout the summer, and Combat Center personnel are taking serious strides to inform people of safety measures they should take to stay safe.

Navy Lt. Keith Kilpatrick, the department head for the Public Health Services at Robert E. Bush Naval Hospital, said hydration is the key to staying healthy and in peek performance, especially during the summer.

“Water makes up about seventy percent of our bodies’ composition,” said Kilpatrick, a Providence Forge, Va., native. Water assists in the transportation of nutrients and gases within the body, helps remove waste and toxins, lubricates tissues and joints, and more importantly, helps regulate a body’s temperature, he said.

When someone does not drink enough water, they may experience muscle cramps, dizziness, nausea, headaches and fatigue and feel lethargic.

Piirainen, who is also a safety technician for the installation, said people should always listen to their bodies. “Throwing up, the heavy dizziness and when you start getting pale and cold and clammy – that’s when you look at [heat] stroke, and that is when you need to get medical attention right away,” said Piirainen, a Lake Charles, La., native.

A body goes through two stages before reaching heat stroke. Being able to recognize the signs of a heat injury and knowing how to prevent it is necessary when living in the desert.

A body will start with heat cramps, which cause heavy sweating and painful spasms in the legs and abdomen. According to the U.S. Department of Health and Human Services’ Web site,, people suffering from heat cramps should stop what they are doing, find shade or an air conditioned room and drink water.

If the person remains in the same conditions, they may move into heat exhaustion, which causes nausea, dizziness, weakness, pale and moist skin, a weak pulse, dilated pupils and fainting spells. When someone is suffering from heat exhaustion, they should be provided water immediately, and kept in the shade or cool building.

 The Web site explained their legs need to be elevated above their heart, and medical attention is required so their condition does not turn into heat stroke.

Heat stoke is similar to heat exhaustion as a person will experience headaches, dizziness and confusion. Unlike exhaustion, they will have a rapid pulse with hot and dry skin along with a body temperature of 104 degrees or higher. Heat stroke can cause vascular collapse, coma and death. If someone is suffering from heat stroke, they need to be moved to a shaded area immediately soaked with cool water and be fanned to help lower their body temperature, stated the Web site.

Their feet should be elevated. Heat stroke is considered a medical emergency and medical attention should be sought immediately.

Kilpatrick advises people to drink at least eight ounces of water immediately upon waking up in the morning, and to continue drinking plenty of water throughout the day.

 “Avoid caffeinated drinks such as sodas and coffee, because they are a diuretic and cause the body to expel water,” he said. “Also, don’t wait until you are thirsty to start drinking water. Each person reaches dehydration at different levels, and it changes due to our body size, metabolism and age. Clear-to-light-colored urine is a good sign of hydration.”

Being prepared for the unexpected is also a great way to prevent an incident during the summer, Piirainen said.

The Morongo Basin search and rescue team urges people, through their Web site,, to pack their cars properly with a minimum of one gallon of water per person per day they plan to be driving through the desert.

“Always, especially in the desert, you need to carry water with you in case your car breaks down,” Piirainen said.

 Dry food, sunscreen, a blanket and a first aid kit should also be in the car. Piirainen also said to perform a vehicle safety check, which includes checking tire pressure, topping off the gas tank, and ensuring all the other fluids are at the right level before taking off on a trip.

For more information regarding heat safety, contact Kilpatrick at 830-2029 or Piirainen at 830-6154.

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Marine Corps Air Ground Combat Center Twentynine Palms