Sleepless in fire battle, volunteers in the line of fire

LACK of sleep during firefighting season is putting the lives of 1836 Sunshine Coast volunteer firefighters on the line.

Researchers and emergency service agencies are trying to find ways to shorten shifts during peak bushfire periods so our yellow army can get enough rest.

A study into the work and sleeping habits of the nation's paid and volunteer fire brigade members shows the longer they are on the ground, the more impaired their decision-making becomes.

CQUniversity professor Sally Ferguson and her fellow researchers used laboratory-based fire scene simulations to investigate what firefighters go through during bushfire suppressions.

The firefighters spent 50 minutes at a time on a range of tasks including raking and clearing ground, carrying or dragging heavy hoses and putting out spot fires.

They then completed tests examining how the physical and cognitive impacts of the work changed their perception, attention to detail, hand-eye co-ordination and their driving skills.

Prof Ferguson said the research was necessary because changes in climate meant firefighters would have less time to rest as fires became more frequent and more dangerous.

"They are probably going to get deployed more frequently, which means less periods of rest between disasters," she said, adding that it was clear sleep deprivation impacted on firefighters' cognitive abilities.

"We know from the laboratory tests that sleep restriction and sleep loss impact their ability to respond quickly, to make decisions, take on new knowledge and maintain vigilance," Prof Ferguson said.

"Reaction time and vigilance are really important for fireground activity.

"We found they didn't move around very much because they were sleep deprived.

"That does have implications for agencies - they need to make sure that firefighters, in their rest breaks, are getting hydrated; that they are getting away from the firegrounds and having a cool down."

Prof Ferguson said fire agencies Australia-wide would use the study results to determine new ways of working during natural disasters.

Rural Fire Brigades Association general manager Justin Choveaux conceded volunteers pushed themselves to the edge when their communities were at risk.

"No one gets enough sleep when their community is under threat," he said.

"We try to limit shifts on the fireground or for disaster recovery to eight hours, yet in the initial stages of a large incident volunteers can far exceed this, especially when their community is under threat.

"Could it be managed better? Of course.

"We should always be looking for ways to better support the brigades and the communities they defend with better and safer practices."



PTSD is a severe and persistent mental health impairment following exposure to a single or multiple traumatic events.

It is believed to impact 10% of Australia's 80,000 firefighters, police and paramedics.

Symptoms typically involve mentally re-experiencing trauma; avoidance of triggers, insomnia and irritability.

People with PTSD often also have major depressive disorder and alcohol or drug use problems.

Source: The Black Dog Institute