July 2023 goes down as hottest month on record; more extreme heat looming

  • Published
  • By Tim Barela
  • Air Education and Training Command Safety Directorate

July 2023 just became the hottest month in recorded history with no relief anytime soon, and the commander-in-chief has taken notice.

The World Meteorological Organization recently announced climate scientists in Europe officially confirmed the record-breaking heat and said to expect more scorching temperatures in August and September. The White House responded to the dangerous weather even before Tuesday’s announcement.

In late July, President Joe Biden asked the Department of Labor to issue the first-ever “Hazard Alert” for heat and directed the DOL to ramp up enforcement to protect workers from the sweltering conditions. Some lawmakers even called on FEMA, the Federal Emergency Management Agency, to declare extreme heat a federal disaster.

While weather-related disasters such as hurricanes, tornados, tsunamis, floods, lightning strikes and blizzards garner a lot of national attention, “For years, heat has been the number one cause of weather-related deaths in America,” according to a White House press release.

Indeed, more than 110 million Americans endured heat alerts this summer, as cities coast to coast logged record temperatures. Many of these communities also reported spikes in thermal injuries and deaths, including from wildfires sparked by the blazing heat.

The unprecedented heatwave saw Phoenix reach temperatures of 110 degrees Fahrenheit or higher for 31 days straight, with a high of nearly 120 degrees. At those temperatures, paved surfaces can reach a sizzling 180 degrees. To put that in perspective, it roughly takes only 150 degrees to fry an egg. So, slips and falls onto a blistering road or sidewalk have caused second-degree burns or worse, according to reports.

Additionally, ocean surface temperatures off the coast of Florida measured just over 101 degrees in July, according to the National Park Service. That’s about the same average temp as the steaming water in a hot tub. Even northern-tier cities aren’t being spared from the relentless summer temperatures. Minneapolis, for instance, saw some of its asphalt roads buckle under the intense heat.

“The Hazard Alert will reaffirm that workers have heat-related protections under federal law,” the White House said. “Additionally, the Department of Labor will ramp up enforcement of heat-safety violations, increasing inspections in high-risk industries.”

Biden recently met with the mayors of two cities where Air Education and Training Command maintains a major military presence to hear from them directly about how their communities are being impacted by extreme heat. Mayor Kate Gallego of Phoenix, which is 15 miles from Luke Air Force Base, Arizona, and Mayor Ron Nirenberg of San Antonio, Texas, home of Joint Base San Antonio-Randolph and Joint Base San Antonio-Lackland, among other military facilities, discussed the steps the White House is taking to protect communities like theirs.

According to the Air Force Safety Automated System’s 2023 statistics, AETC has seen a dramatic rise in thermal injuries, such as dehydration, heat exhaustion and heatstroke. AFSAS reported 52 thermal injuries in AETC in 2021 and 63 in 2022. This year’s data already shows 122 thermal injuries (as of Aug. 10) in the command with summer far from over.

But the news isn’t all bad.

AETC hasn’t suffered a heat-related death since July 7, 2016, when 21-year-old Airman 1st Class Kenneth Sturgill died of heatstroke during Survival, Evasion, Resistance and Escape training at Joint Base San Antonio-Camp Bullis, Texas.

Even basic training, with its thousands of new recruits each year baking in San Antonio’s humidity, hasn’t experienced a heat-related fatality since Sept. 12, 1999, when 18-year-old Airman Basic Micah Schindler tragically passed away from heatstroke two days after collapsing at the end of a 5.6-mile march near the end of Warrior Week.

“A high workload and a mission-focused mindset to graduate students on time can sometimes interfere with good judgment calls to avoid heat exposure,” said Master Sgt. Jarrod Armes, Second Air Force safety manager.  

However, he added that he has seen leadership throughout AETC take precautions to protect their Airmen and beat the heat.

Some preventative measures the command has implemented include:

  • Conducting heat stress classes to increase awareness of signs, symptoms and prevention measures
  • Shifting training times to early morning hours to avoid exposure to the hottest parts of the day
  • Providing electrolyte packets to mix with water to aid in hydration
  • Allowing students to wear physical training gear during riskier hot periods and providing them with towels dipped in iced water to put around their necks
  • Investing in portable coolers and air-conditioned trailers
  • Using dunk tanks filled with water and ice to submerge a student’s forearms, immediately bringing the body’s core temperature down
  • Erecting shade structures at training areas
  • Increasing the mobile medic presence at training events to reduce response time

“The command as a whole has done a good job in taking measures to mitigate the extreme heat,” said Robbie Bogard, chief of AETC’s Occupational Safety Division. “But with the rising number of thermal injuries, more needs to be done.”

This proves especially true since the World Meteorological Organization predicts there’s a 98-percent chance one of the next five years will become the hottest in recorded history.

Bogard says the problem with heat-related illnesses stems from the fact that they can come on quickly and without warning … even for an experienced safety professional.

“Several years ago, I succumbed to heat exhaustion while on a bicycle ride in south Texas,” Bogard said. “I got behind on drinking water, became dehydrated, and eventually nearly passed out while still cycling, causing me to fall over into a ditch.”

Luckily for Bogard, a good Samaritan witnessed his mishap and stopped to render aid. She helped him into her air-conditioned vehicle and gave him ice-cold water bottles from a cooler, helping him to quickly rehydrate and cool down, he said.

 “Heat stress can sneak up on any of us, so we need to recognize the hazards and take appropriate risk mitigation steps,” Bogard said. “Don’t underestimate the heat and overestimate your heat tolerance like I did.”