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updated: 7/6/2012 6:32 AM

Hot or cold? Outdoor workers can do without either one

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  • Mike Knitter, senior keeper at Brookfield Zoo, sprays water on Emma to help the Holstein cow cool off.

      Mike Knitter, senior keeper at Brookfield Zoo, sprays water on Emma to help the Holstein cow cool off.
    Courtesy of Jim Schulz/Chicago Zoological Society

  • Katelyn Stache, a zookeeper for the Chicago Zoological Society, puts Slinky and Slither, two boa constrictors at Brookfield Zoo, in water to cool them off.

      Katelyn Stache, a zookeeper for the Chicago Zoological Society, puts Slinky and Slither, two boa constrictors at Brookfield Zoo, in water to cool them off.
    Courtesy of Jim Schulz/Chicago Zoological Society

  • Chuck Arwood of Hogan Plumbing takes a drink during a break Thursday at a Naperville construction site. "We try to start early and get done early," he said of working on very hot days.

       Chuck Arwood of Hogan Plumbing takes a drink during a break Thursday at a Naperville construction site. "We try to start early and get done early," he said of working on very hot days.
    Bev Horne | Staff Photographer

 

When it comes to sweltering heat or blistering cold, is there a lesser of two evils?

Not necessarily, say people who work outdoors -- they both stink in their own special way.

"That's like, would you rather be in the middle of a volcano when it erupts or at the North Pole in the wintertime? They're both dangerous but for opposite reasons," said Carol Stream police Sgt. Tom Miller, who's been running public safety operations during this week's heat wave.

A team of Daily Herald reporters -- working mostly from the confines of an air-conditioned office -- surveyed 10 people whose jobs keep them outside during inclement weather to see if they prefer to shiver or sweat.

Their responses ran, well, hot and cold.

'It's pretty miserable'

Extreme weather is never fun for police officers working the street, but if Pat Gengler had his way, he'd rather freeze than sizzle.

"I hate to say it, but I'd take zero degrees or a little below that rather than this," said the Kane County sheriff's lieutenant, who spent July 4 patrolling and responding to calls. "If there's a lot of snow, that's no fun at all. But we're able to stay fairly warm even in the cold with extra layers of clothes, and our vests do a good job blocking the wind. Of course, too long in either setting could kill you."

Responding to service calls during a heat wave can be particularly depressing, Gengler said, when officers arrive to find a backyard barbecue with people swimming and lounging around in bathing suits: "Logically, you feel a bit hotter when you see those things."

Even worse is directing traffic and working crash scenes.

"It's pretty miserable," Gengler said. "We're wearing all dark clothes. We've got our vest on, our duty belt on, our boots. You're out there in the heat standing on blacktop, which only makes it worse. There's nowhere to go."

Gengler said those who have it worse are the volunteers working festivals or offering help with emergency management efforts. "At least we're getting paid," he said.

'No way to escape'

Trying to keep zoo animals comfortable on an oppressively hot day is a lot of work

Still, area zookeepers can't forget their own safety while getting blocks of ice or manning hoses to douse animals with water.

"You find ways to stay cool and pace yourself," said Tim Sullivan, the curator of behavioral husbandry at Brookfield Zoo. "You go inside if you need some shade and then go back out and finish your job."

Staff and volunteers at Cosley Zoo in Wheaton had an especially difficult time early this week because the zoo was without power for several days following Sunday's storms.

"Monday and Tuesday were pretty rough," said Angie Dosch, animal collection supervisor at Cosley. "We had no way to escape the heat."

Dosch said everyone coped by taking frequent breaks and drinking a lot of ice water.

As someone who once was a zookeeper in Brookfield Zoo's marine mammal area, Sullivan said he would rather do that job in excessive heat than in extreme cold.

"Cold just makes everything more difficult, especially working around water," he said. "The water freezes, and you're bundled up. So you're not as free to move."

Work counteracts cold

Whether it's frighteningly hot or bitter cold, Mark Hochsprung and his crew at Morton Arboretum in Lisle have 972 acres to look after -- and Mother Nature isn't going to prevent them from doing it.

That's one reason why winter is better, he said. The work itself can keep you toasty.

"If you work, your internal BTUs will counteract that," said Hochsprung, the arboretum's supervisor of natural resources. "You can't do that in the heat; you're going to get heat stroke."

He and his six-person crew spend 95 percent of their time outdoors tending to natural prairies, woodlands and wetlands. When it's extremely hot, he said, they change their schedules to start at 6 a.m. and are careful to stay hydrated.

"I drink a half-gallon of water in the morning and a half-gallon in the afternoon, and that's pretty typical for what you need," Hochsprung said. "A lot of it is making sure people understand, we need them to take care of themselves. We don't need a heat casualty. You're going to be down for days."

Other perks of winter include the ability to dress warmer and to find shelter from the wind.

"Working in both the heat and cold, you do get somewhat acclimated," Hochsprung said. "I've worked out here in below zero and felt warm and comfortable. But this weather, if you're out in the sun, there's just no way."

Enough heat as it is

For firefighters, there's already enough on-the-job heat. Sweating through triple digits only makes it worse.

"This heat is very difficult on the personnel," said Hank Clemmensen, chief of the Palatine Rural Fire Protection District. "It takes such a long time to rehydrate and cool the core. The core temperature is what hurts."

Firefighting gear multiplies the sun's warming effects. Simply putting it on starts the sweat pouring, said Gurnee Fire Lt. Joe Arnold.

"Just riding the rig to the call is elevating your body temperature," Arnold said.

Aurora Fire Lt. Jim Rhodes tells his crews to choose water over coffee or pop on extremely hot days, and to hydrate before any emergencies might arise. Firefighters also scrap outdoor training plans during heat waves, but Rhodes still said heat is harder to work in than cold.

His condition after an hour extricating people from a car Tuesday proves his point.

"I looked like somebody took a bucket of water and poured it over me I was sweating so much," Rhodes said.

Weight-loss plan?

Joe Weston, owner of JW Construction in Lake Geneva, Wis., will take this heat over the cold of winter any day.

He and Max Hanna were installing a pergola Thursday in a Carpentersville backyard and used cold water from the hose to keep their body temperatures down.

Weston likes to start early in order to end early on hot days like this. The heat, he said, "is easier to deal with. (You) can take a lot of breaks."

Hanna joked that the heat makes for easy weight loss.

'Rather deal with this'

Miller, the Carol Stream police sergeant, described the recent heat wave as "pretty brutal" but said it beats the alternative because at least you can get around.

"Personally, I'd rather deal with this," he said. "You can get things done easier than with the ice and snow, which inhibits your travel."

Miller agreed that neither situation is ideal when your job is to keep people, including yourself, safe.

"It's difficult at both ends," he said. "Just like with the extreme cold, you work in it so long that you need a break from it. You've got to stay hydrated. You can't take care of other people if you don't take care of yourself."

It's especially trying when inclement weather such as Sunday's storm leads to power outages and other emergencies that put officers in extreme conditions for lengthy periods. Miller said law enforcement's primary concern is to make sure citizens are hydrated and safe, but it's easy to overexert yourself.

"You get to a point of exhaustion," he said.

Either way, it's tough

Landscaping companies may not cut as much grass this summer because most lawns are parched. But there's still companies like RYCO Landscaping in Lake in the Hills that keep busy in 100-plus degree heat by installing irrigation systems and building patios.

In the winter, RYCO does snow plowing for commercial and residential customers. Shannon O'Neil, the company's office manager, says working in the extremes of either season isn't much fun.

But at least in the winter, workers are inside heated trucks as they plow, she said.

"Whether you're laying bricks or mowing or trimming, you're outside," she said.

The scorching temperatures and humidity also mean crews aren't operating at 100 percent efficiency, having to take more water breaks. The company also adjusts work schedules to make the days shorter.

"Weather affects how guys work," O'Neil said.

• Daily Herald photographer Laura Stoecker and staff writers Christopher Placek, Marie Wilson and Robert Sanchez contributed to this report.

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