Imagine working for 15 to 16 hours straight, in life-threatening conditions for days in a row while only clocking up four to five hours sleep each night.
Extreme exhaustion: that’s how firefighters describe their state when working in such conditions, according to PhD student Grace Vincent of Deakin University. In principle, fire-fighter’s shifts are limited to 12 hours, but in the face of someone’s house burning down, these limits are understandably pushed aside.
In Australia over 220,000 volunteer fire fighters are signed up to help to save lives, properties and national parks from the bushfires that are only predicted to increase in frequency and severity in the coming years.
But what about fire-fighter’s own safety? Fatigue is as dangerous as being drunk when it comes to mental and physical performance. And sleep deprivation has long been hailed as one of the best forms of torture.
“The level of service of our fire-fighters is so high that I feel it’s a duty they are protected to the highest possible standard,” says Vincent who is conducting the first study that objectively measures the hours of work and sleep and levels of fatigue experienced by fire-fighters. To date she has data on 15 fire-fighters in the field, and is seeking active volunteers for the study who are likely to go out on four campaign fires per season.
“The fire-fighters report getting only about four to five hours sleep per night,” says Vincent. “ They have trouble sleeping due to other people snoring in locations such as cabins, tents or the floor of school gyms. Some are simply so wired after spending the whole day in emergency mode, that they can’t switch off. ”
About a third of the fire-fighters reported napping, wherever they could, usually for about an hour. Nap sites might include the truck or simply on the ground resting on their helmets as pictured above.
“Fire-fighters are encouraged to rest and nap when they can, but there are no set breaks. It all depends on the conditions at the time,” says Vincent.
The results of this research will help inform fatigue management strategies for emergency workers. Such improvements might include 8 hour rather than12 hour shifts (depending on the nature of work performed), deploying more fighters, improving sleep locations or introducing simple measures such as providing ear plugs when sleeping.
It’s not known how common fatigue-related incidents are during fire-fighting campaigns, but the science clearly points to a high risk given the hours of work and hours of sleep typical amongst many fire-fighters. And the dangers of fatigue are not just limited to the fire-ground. “Returning to work is also a high risk period, but a car crash while driving home after days of just 5 hours sleep, might not get reported as a fire-related incident,” says Vincent.
Participation in the study is simple and involves wearing a wrist and shirt pocket activity monitor that measures sleep and activity, and filling out a sleep and work diary during a fire-fighting period.
Contact: Grace Vincent, Centre for Physical Activity and Nutrition Research, Deakin University, Ph: 0478 019 526 E: firstname.lastname@example.org.
The study is supervised by Dr Brad Aisbett, Deakin University and Professor Sally Ferguson, The Appleton Institute, Central Queensland University.