Whilst enjoying the current run of hot weather, it is easy to forget just how dangerous this heat can be. A year ago we heard the tragic news of the soldiers on selection for SAS Reserve who died after taking part in a gruelling exercise in the Brecon Beacons. Their deaths were later found to have been caused by heat exhaustion. A three week inquest to be held later this year will consider how the course was set up, how much water the men had and how prepared they were for the conditions. The CPS have recently confirmed they will not press manslaughter charges on those who oversaw the exercise.
Unfortunately this is not the first time that soldiers have died in these conditions. From January 1984 to 31 December 2012 a heat-related condition is given as the primary cause of the death of 16 Armed Forces personnel. This is according to an MOD response to a Freedom of Information Request made in August last year.
Heat injuries occur when the core body temperature rises against a failing thermoregulatory system. There are many types of heat injury, ranging from mild heat cramps to life-threatening heat stroke. The symptoms of heatstroke develop more quickly when associated with physical activity. They include a high body temperature, rapid breathing and heartbeat and heavy sweating that suddenly stops. This occurs if the body is no longer able to produce any more sweat because of water depletion. In extreme cases of heat stroke the nervous system is affected, and this causes symptoms of mental confusion, seizures, restlessness and loss of consciousness.
The real tragedy of all of these deaths is that it is very possible that they could have been prevented. The Ministry of Defence has had their own guidelines, certainly since 2003, for the prevention and treatment of climatic injuries. These note that nearly all death as a result of heat and cold injuries are preventable, if the risk factors are assessed properly and appropriately managed.
Commanders have a duty to assess the risks of heat illness arising from military training or operations and to ensure that these risks are minimized as far as is reasonably practicable. If the exercise is going to go ahead then Commanders must be aware of their further responsibilities. For example, individuals should be supervised whilst they drink before, during and after a ‘high risk activity’. They should also be given rest periods to cool down during intense physical activity.