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Sleep is key to help firefighters avoid safety risks during bushfires

Published:21 February 2018

Bushfire image courtesy Bert Knottenbeld via Flickr Creative Commons

Elevated and unsustainable levels of firefighter fatigue and/or degradation of firefighters’ work performance could increase their individual risk of injury, increase demand on other crew members, and compromise the overall bushfire suppression operation.

Knowing what happens when you don’t get enough sleep, and how much is enough can place fire agencies in a strong position to improve aspects of sleep that are in their control.

That’s according to a new publication in the International Journal of Wildland FireSleep in wildland firefighters: what do we know and why does it matter? - by researchers from CQUniversity, Deakin University and Monash University.

Lead author Dr Grace Vincent from CQUniversity says recent research has highlighted the quantity and quality of sleep as a significant and potentially modifiable factor impacting operational performance.

She says firefighters’ sleep is restricted during deployments to bushfires, particularly when shifts have early start times or long durations, and when firefighters are sleeping in temporary accommodation. Other factors can include smoke, heat and noise.

“While firefighters may be capable of physically performing tasks, they are also at increased injury risk due to cognitive impairment,” Dr Vincent says. 

Recent studies have shown that during multi-day bushfire operations firefighters obtained 54 minutes less sleep than on routine days. The data also indicated that shifts longer than 14-hours were associated with 48 minutes less sleep than shifts less than 14 hours.

Given that sleep quantity was reduced on days fighting bushfires, fire agencies should focus on modifying specific characteristics of work shifts (e.g., shift length, shift start time, sleeping location) to improve firefighters’ sleep quantity during deployments.

Dr Vincent recommends provision of cool, dark and quiet sleeping environments which are away from arriving crew members. Ear-plugs could be provided too.

“Incorporating their likely higher fatigue risk into next-day (or night) planning is critical,” she says.

“The trigger points for employing these countermeasures may change within and between deployments.

“Work shifts should be structured to provide rest periods during shifts and sufficient recovery opportunities between shifts.

“Increasing levels of ‘sleep knowledge’ within fire agencies can help them structure work patterns and fatigue management policies, in order to avoid accident and injury risk amongst firefighters.”

Dr Vincent says the longer-term impacts of sleep restriction on firefighters’ physiological and mental health require further research.

Her co-authors included her CQUni colleagues Professor Sally Ferguson and Dr Sarah Jay along with Associate Professor Brad Aisbett and Dr Nicola Ridgers from Deakin Uni and Dr Alexander Wolkow from Monash Uni.