Friday, 19 October 2012

Lights, Camera, Action ... Heat, Dehydration, Crash

It was never that bad :)
I found myself on a film set the other day. This might sound glamorous, but it's a lot of waiting around, being told what to do and then doing it over and over again. You can't go very far and you don't really know when it's going to end. When working on a film set, knowledge of the human body and application of survival skills can get you through the day. With lots of down time and unpredictable events in a hot and largely resource free environment, it's easy to to get overheated, fatigued and dehydrated. Using your head and being opportunistic is the only way to ensure you're on form and not exhausted at the end of it all. This article is not about film set survival, more an insight into managing yourself in an situation over which you have little control.

Let's set the scene. This was not, as would far easier I suspect, an interview or consultation for an outdoor show or news programme. Instead, my daughter and I were to participate in the audience of a BBC children's programme; Hoopla, as it happens. So, as you can imagine, the place was packed with kids or many ages together with their largely disinterested parents, a number of crew and a group of  producers, running around, feigning enthusiasm and whose job I do not envy one bit.

It was a hot day, but showers were predicted. The info said no lunch would be provided, though facilities would be on sight. The filming was to be just a morning, but these things often go on as as it transpired, this was no exception, turning out to be an 11 hour day. There are no lockers at film sets, except maybe at some studios. Nor, if you're on camera, can you wear or carry coats or bags and you definitely don't want to be wearing more than a shirt under all those light. Preparation was therefore a small bottle of water, a tonne of sarnies, a few snack bars, cash, deodorant and some old waterproofs, which we didn't mind getting lost. For those with kids, you will also understand the need for baby wipes and a complete change of clothes. You just never know. We left as early as we could to be able to park and leave most of this in the car as close as possible to the set.

On arrival, situation and environmental analysis was simple. The space was a warehouse with an open area outside and the car park. It wasn't raining, there were few clouds the there as little wind, indicating fare weather for some time. Facilities included a toilet with drinking water, a burger van, ironically names "Quality Food" that also sold hot & cold drinks, sweets and candy floss. This was a "big top" themed programme with an audience full of kids, so you can't knock their opportunism. From here on in, we were at the mercy of the producers and so with money, water and snacks bars the only possessions we were carrying, the day begun to to unfold.

Initially, there was ... a wait. Kids were excited, parents needed a cuppa. Nobody knew what was going on and being very British, people started to queue, randomly. Eventually, we were briefed. First, there was to be a wait, then some filming, waiting, filming, waiting, filming, lunch, filming, waiting, filming, waiting, etc. Health and safety was outlined, forms filled and we were set free into what was now starting to feel like a holding area, which of course it was. As kids got bored, so sweets and pop were purchased. This was to be the seed that would grow into a nightmare as the day went on.

The thing about the body, is that is like everything to stay the same (homoeostasis). The thing about blood sugar, primarily glucose, is that it increases when you eat something and it increases hugely when you eat something sugary. The body's reactions to an increase in blood sugar level is, amongst other things, to release the hormone insulin. This puts to body in storage mode, decreasing levels. As the level drops, the insulin has done its work. If the level drops below the desired level, as would be case all the time, increasing with exercise, so glucagon, another hormone, is released. This cues the body to release stored sugars. This system of antagonistic hormones keeps the body on the level.

As with any negative feedback process, smaller changes are easy to manage, but as you can imagine, a large spike, such as would be the case with the intake of easy to process carbohydrates like sweets and pop, illicits a large dose of insulin being released which, combined with exercise enhanced by this new found energy, creates a rapid drop in blood sugar. This then results in another huge dose of hormones being released to increase it, not so much this time, the level goes over the bar and insulin brings it back down. Eventually, everything gets back to normal, but the body has suffered from highs and lows. Nobody gets on with low blood sugar. It makes me ratty. Anyone with kids knows the effects it has one their activity and mood.

The mistake that was made by many of the parents during the initial "big dip", rather than let the body sort itself out, was to supplement their offspring with, you guessed it, more sugary food and drinks. By the time this was digested, glucagon had already been released, increasing blood sugar and so as the digested sugars hit the blood stream, another big spike occurred. This unfortunately started a cycle of highs and lows which the body really didn't have a chance of regulating. As the high came, so the child ran around in the sun, dropping blood sugar even more quickly and then as it fell, so the parent fed the dip, recreating the high.

All of this madness was compounded by Dick & Dom getting all the kids very excited under all the hot lights in the closed warehouse which after no time at all had its own micro climate resembling that of the tropics. With high levels of heat and moisture in the air, there was much sweating and general overheating. This, of course, cost the body water. Already dehydrated due all the running around in the sun, the kids were complaining of thirst. How handy, then it was that the burger van sold water, but what kid do you know that chooses water? No, they wanted pop again, and due to the implied peer pressure of not being the only parent to force their kid to drink water, fizzy, sugary pop was once more the order of the day.

You'd have thought that was all of the problems, but no, there are more. Due to the general attitude of "I'll drink this and go off to play", the children were either guzzling the drink or wanting to leave it with the parents, which subsequently insisted they drink it. The upshot of this was a quick influx of fluids into the body. The problem here is that a normal human adult can only absorb water at a rate of around one litre per hour. This is the rate at which saline drips flow in hospital. The rate is based on body mass, so you can imagine, it's a lot less for children. In addition, both carbohydrates and caffeine reduce the net absorption rate of fluids. So if the body can't absorb it, where does it go? The loo, that's where. The body can't keep it, so it gets rid of it, no matter how dehydrated it is.

And so to lunch. At least now, everyone would get some complex carbohydrates, fats and protein, all of which would release into the bloodstream much more slowly than simple sugars. Of course, crisps, sweets and our favourite carbonated drinks were on the menu too adding sugar, salt and other food additives to the mix. Some of these salts will have replaced electrolytes lost through sweat, which isn't all bad. I've never really understood how kids can have their fill then get right on with playing again without getting indigestion, but they did.

This lunch break was, of course, succeeded by another briefing, a wait and some more filming, waiting and filming. Now the kids are getting bored. The hosts no longer hold their excitement, it's starting to look like rain and the reaction of pretty much all parents here is to get them a treat. This created great happiness and as the body has already managed the lunch time intake of energy, so came another cycle of energetic blood sugar  highs and emotional lows, together with frequent visits to the loo.

By now, the parents were going insane and as the children were getting more bored, so the explored further, experimented with their environments, knocked a few things over, and were ultimately grounded by their parents who by stage were dreaming of putting their feet up and having a proper cup of tea, rather than the tea flavoured drink available on site. This resulted in lines of parents sat by a wall with either kids bouncing beside them or falling asleep on them. Of course, no child actually wanted to go home, they might end up missing an opportunity to be on TV.

As the day wore on, it never did rain, but the clouds came over and with no sun radiating heat upon us, the temperature dropped ... outside. The subtropical climate of the studio was still as hot as it had been all day and so now, the t-shirt clad, sweltering kids came outside, sat with their parents in the cold outdoors and due to being covered in sweat, cooled down rapidly. Shivering begun to ensue, and much hugging and cardigan wrapping occurred. In extremis, this could lead to hypothermia. It was now that hot chocolate was on the menu. The internal warming, combined with the drying and insulating effect of being wrapped up helped matters no end, but they were suffering, children and adults alike.

Eventually it was all over. There had been laughter, tears and everyone was looking forward to seeing the show and trying to spot themselves on TV. Some kids had prizes, some were covered in slime and the burger van had made a fortune. Everyone went home, some carrying their now very fatigued children in their arms to their cars at the far end of the car park, which was the only space they could get when they arrived.

So, what survival skills can we employ in this type of situation?

First, be prepared. You know what you're going in to, so make sure you take the correct equipment with you to cover most inconvenient situations. Don't trust the schedule, don't assume anything about the facilities and don't rely on the weather forecast. Make sure you do things early rather than late. That includes getting there on time as well as wrapping up before you get cold, letting yourself cool down before you get hot, drinking before you get thirsty and eating before you get hungry. Look for and take opportunities as they arise, you don't know if you might have one again soon. Look out for symptoms in others, as they are unlikely to notice them in themselves. Little and often is the key with water and food to ensure your body gets the best out of it and blood sugar is more easily regulated. Ensure that you don't try to manage blood sugar by applying lots of simple carbohydrates, you'll only compound the problem. Instead, mix different types of foods to ensure the body has a progressive release of energy. All of these precautions will help you and yours hydrated, maintain body temperature, maintain energy levels, keep the body working efficiently and ultimately stop you becoming quickly fatigued.

Covert Hydration Unit
We sat in the shade a lot, rather than the sun, though this was easier with an older child who has long since lost the urge to run around screaming. We entertained ourselves with looking for wild plants, made a few things with twigs and played some word games. If I'd have known some of the waiting periods were going to be so long, I'd have brought a pack of cards. Layers of clothes can be easily taken off when hot and more importantly put on when going from a hot to cold environment or after exercise. I carried a small water bottle in my back pocket always which we took from every now and then and refilled in the breaks, even if it wasn't empty. Snack bars and other pocket food could be consumed on set between takes for those "I'm hungry", "you weren't hungry when I asked five minutes ago" moments.

As you can see, the skills and knowledge used to survive this day can be applied in any wilderness, urban or natural disaster situation. Our needs and priorities remain the same what every our circumstances, be it a plane crash in the Arctic, ship wrecked on a desert island, lost in the jungle, civil unrest or attending a children's party (much the same thing). Film sets are just another survival situation, especially with kids. Look after yourself and those around you and it'll all become a lot easier.

For updates and more, take a look at the Survival's Cool Facebook page.

Take part in an open discussion about this article on Facebook