Is SC doing enough to protect high school athletes from the heat?

When Army recruits begin outside training at Columbia’s Fort Jackson, drill sergeants take into account the heat conditions, based on the reading of a wet-bulb device.

Based on measurements from the device – which measures temperature, humidity and radiated heat from the sun and turf – Fort Jackson drill sergeants adjust training, making recruits drink more water or shed heavy equipment and clothing. If conditions are too severe, they cancel conditioning outside.

Fort Jackson is not alone. The University of South Carolina uses wet-bulb devices before its athletes train, and the state of Georgia requires its high schools to do the same.

But the S.C. High School League does not require Palmetto State high schools to use Wet Bulb Globe Temperature devices before students step onto the practice field.

High school practices in the extreme S.C. heat are under scrutiny after the death of 14-year-old Lewis Simpkins, a River Bluff High School football player who collapsed during a practice.

Simpkins died from pre-existing heart conditions. However, “external environmental factors such as the high heat and humidity of the day, likely contributed ... in a setting of strenuous physical exertion (football practice),” according to Lexington County Coroner Margaret Fisher.

River Bluff High School uses wet-bulb devices at every football practice and the device was used the day that Simpkins died, said Lexington 1 school district spokeswoman Mary Beth Hill.

Still, Simpkins’ death has fueled discussions about heat safety and whether every S.C. school should be required to use wet-bulb devices.

Protecting SC prep athletes?

The S.C. High School League does not require high schools to use wet-bulb devices.

However, some S.C. high school coaches and districts choose to use them, said Charlie Wentzky of the High School League.

The league says it does not know how many S.C. schools use the devices. Whether high schools will be required to use them in the future is unclear. The High School League’s policies are reviewed every year, Wentzky said.

The sports medicine subcommittee of the S.C. Medical Association met recently and heard from Susan Yeargin, an athletics training professor at the University of South Carolina, and other experts about heat-related illnesses.

The subcommittee is reviewing information about wet-bulb devices and could make recommendations for their use to the S.C. High School League.

“It gives you just a more global overall look at what the environment is placing on an athlete or any exercising individual,” USC’s Yeargin said.

Obstacles include the expense of the devices and having to train coaches on how to use them, said Dr. Christopher Mazoue, who sits on the Medical Association subcommittee.

But, Mazoue added, “We understand the grave concerns about the safety of our high school athletes.”

Neighboring Georgia already requires its high schools to use wet-bulb devices.

The Georgia High School Association requires schools in that state to buy devices, costing between $150 and $300, and use them when deciding to hold athletics practices. Georgia schools that don’t do so face fines ranging from $500 to $1,000.

The University of South Carolina uses wet-bulb devices, too.

The Gamecocks football team uses a Kestrel 4400 heat stress tracker during practice to monitor the heat, adjusting practices accordingly, said USC football athletics trainer Clint Haggard. If the reading gets high enough, for example, the football team will moves its practices to an indoor facility, he said.

USC’s other outdoor sports use wet bulb monitoring as well.

“It’s not a 100 percent prevention tool,” said Yeargin. “But it definitely is one step forward to protect our athletes to modify practices – to change them or cancel them.”

Fort Jackson’s heat guidelines

At Columbia’s Fort Jackson, training can change radically based on what wet-bulb devices are telling trainers about the heat.

If the heat escalates far enough, trainees are told to take the cuffs of their pants out of their boots and unbuckle their utility belts. Then, they must remove camouflaged jacket-like shirts and helmets, unless there is a specific safety reason to wear them – being on the rifle range, for instance.

Once the wet bulb measurement reaches an even higher level, outdoors training stops.

Each Fort Jackson training company – about 200 soldiers – has its own wet bulb while training, said safety specialist Vinson Washington.

“The wet bulb acts as a trigger mechanism for ... modification of uniform and activity,” said fort spokesman Pat Jones. “If we didn’t have the wet bulb, we wouldn’t know when to start the process.”

Cassie Cope: 803-771-8657, @cassielcope

Higher readings? Less activity

Georgia high schools are required to use wet-bulb devices that measure the temperature, humidity and radiated heat. Based on those readings – not just the temperature – their practices also are limited. Here’s how:

Reading under 82. Normal activities but athletes must get at least three separate rest breaks each hour of at least 3 minutes.

Reading from 82 to 86.9. Use discretion for intense or prolonged exercise; watch at-risk players carefully; provide at least three separate rest breaks each hour of a minimum of 4 minutes each.

Reading from 87 to 89.9. Maximum practice time is 2 hours. Football players can wear only helmets, shoulder pads and shorts. All protective equipment must be removed for conditioning activities. All sports must have at least four separate rest breaks each hour of a minimum of 4 minutes each.

Reading from 90 to 92. Maximum length of practice is an hour. No protective football equipment may be worn, and there may be no conditioning activities. All sports must have 20 minutes of rest breaks distributed throughout the hour of practice.

Reading over 92. No outdoor workouts allowed.

SOURCE: Georgia High School Association