JACKSONVILLE, Fla. – Safety during a global pandemic has consumed the country for the past six months. Now that high school athletics are poised for a comeback, there’s a focus on quite a bit more than just COVID-19 precautions.
In July, the Zachary Martin Act became law in Florida. That law put in place safeguards meant to help high schools react quicker when athletes show signs of heat illnesses. That means cooling tubs outside during practices and enhanced temperature checks of the weather to make sure it’s safe to practice and condition in.
If the weather doesn’t meet new criteria set by the state and the sports medicine advisory committee, then outdoor practices can’t be held. That goes for games, too, making afternoon games in the scorching Florida heat less likely to occur.
Robert Sefick, executive director of Jacksonville Sports Medicine Program, said that the area was preparing heat illness initiatives long before it became state law.
“Florida heat is rather oppressive, and as adults, as coaches, as athletic trainers, we need to be ready to respond to somebody that might be struggling with the heat,” he said.
What has that meant for not only schools but the coaches and athletic trainers who have been more educated on heat illnesses than ever before? More awareness. Enhanced safety.
“We’ve been paying attention to it big time,” said Bartram Trail athletic director Ben Windle. “In St. Johns County, we all have dedicated athletic trainers and they’re very good at what they do. It’s not too different than what we’re used to doing, but anything you can do to make things safer, we’re all for.”
For some in the area, it’s a continuation of what they’ve been doing already.
“Everything that has been implemented in the Zach Martin Act we have already been doing. Aside from having an official cool zone, we already set up our cool zones last year when it was really hot,” said Tatiana Burrough, athletic trainer at Ribault.
“Now, we just do it every day so it was a smooth transition. Especially getting the coaches’ involvement [will help] because it was just on us last year, but now that it is an actual law the coaches are taking it more seriously and helping out.”
Zachary Martin-Polsenberg is the namesake of the state law that was passed to address more stringent heat illness guidelines. In the summer of 2017, Martin, a 16-year-old at Riverdale High School in Fort Myers, collapsed during a summer workout.
He died 11 days later after being removed from life support. According to the Zach Martin Foundation, he had a core body temperature of 107 degrees when he arrived at Golisano Children’s Hospital and had suffered an exertional heat stroke and massive internal organ damage.
There were no cold-immersion tubs at Martin-Polsenberg’s workout that day. Numerous medical reports say that if heat illness can be treated immediately, situations like his are easily avoided.
“Heat stroke is 100% preventable and 100% survivable,” Sefcik said.
In 2018, the National Center for Catastrophic Sport Injury Research said that 64 football players have died since 1995 due to heat strokes. The overwhelming number of those deaths (47) occurred at the high school level. The remainder came from college (13), professional and youth (two apiece). The data said that 90% of the deaths came during practice.
In addition to the mandatory cold tubs on site during practices, schools are now required to check the temperature using a device like a wet-bulb thermometer to gauge the heat stress outdoors.
Unlike just using a traditional device to check the temperature outside, the wet-bulb thermometer uses a reading of things like temperature, wind speed, humidity and cloud cover to give a reading of heat stress. That reading will dictate how long teams can practice and how many breaks must be given. It can also scrap things completely. A look at the guidelines for that:
- If the heat stress reading it 82 degrees or less, then normal activities are permitted.
- If the reading is between 82.1 and 87 degrees, three separate four-minute breaks per hour of activity are required.
- If the reading is between 87.1 and 90 degrees, there is a maximum time of two hours of activity. Four separate four-minute rest breaks per hour of activity are required. Football athletes are limited to helmet and shoulder pads during activity.
- For readings between 90.1 and 92, only a maximum of one hour of activity time and five separate four-minute rest breaks. No protective equipment is permitted.
- At 92.1 and above, no outdoor activities are allowed.
That law will no doubt force teams to look at practice schedules and games.
“It is going to be more of the 4 o’clock games or the cross-country matches, things like that,” Sefcik said of potential changes due to the heat. “We may need to rethink it. It is not meant to be a penalty it is just meant to say, ‘we have more information now than we have ever had.’”
Mandarin football coach Bobby Ramsay said that it’s unfortunate that it took a state law to push something like this into the forefront in Florida.
“Heat illness has been a problem in the state of Florida. It certainly needed to be addressed. You just hate to see it get to a point where it has to be regulated,” Ramsay said. “At the same time, I still don’t think it changes the fact you have to be proactive. To me, heat illness is a proactive and not a reactive. It’s educating players, educating parents about it. You just don’t need to take any chances. A guy comes up to you and says he’s dizzy, that’s it, sit down.”