How much sleep do tactical athletes need?

sleep firefighter

Tom Sadowski, El Cariso Hotshots, 1972. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Charles Palmer, an associate professor at the University of Montana who studies performance psychology of wildland firefighters, has called them “tactical athletes”. Mr. Palmer, who spent 20 years as a firefighter and smokejumper, has said:

These aren’t people who ride around in trucks and squirt water on stuff — this is really demanding from a lot of different angles. You travel around, you have to perform, they’re getting very little downtime, they have nutritional challenges … physically you have to perform really well.

A study of wildland firefighters during suppression activities in Spain found that heart rates ranged from 116 to 133 beats per minute depending on the length of the work. Researchers in Australia measured heart rates of firefighters operating hand tools that were 95 percent of their predicted maximal.

When we read an article at the Monday Morning Quarterback about managing the sleep of professional football players, we could’t help but make the comparison between those athletes and the ones who fight wildfires for a living.

According to the piece by Jennie Vrentas, an increasing number of NFL teams are emphasizing an adequate amount of sleep for their players. Below are some excerpts from the article:

A good night’s sleep is directly tied to key factors such as reaction time, mental alertness, muscular recovery and converting what you’ve recently learned into memory. That’s why the science of slumber has become one of the hottest trends in the NFL: Teams are no longer leaving it to chance that their multimillion dollar investments will manage sleep cycles all on their own.

The Dolphins and Patriots have dark rooms at their practice facilities so players can take naps. Eagles players fill out a morning questionnaire on their tablets, self-reporting how long and how well they slept the previous night.

If you run on four hours of sleep a night for a week, it’s the same as drinking a six-pack and then going to work.

“The average athlete probably needs eight to nine hours of sleep, given their physical demands,” [Washington team physician Anthony] Czeisler says, and even more if you can get it. “I wish I could say there’s a shortcut, but if you are going to be a professional athlete, you need to pay careful attention to sleep.”

A single all-nighter, or a week spent getting just four hours of sleep a night, can make one’s reaction time nearly three times slower.

The article refers to studies completed on football and basketball players, but there has also been research on how sleep affects wildland firefighters. In a study of firefighters in Australia during a four-day simulation of an assignment on a wildland fire, it was found that after two nights of being restricted to four hours of sleep their performance on a hand-eye coordination task declined. However their work output remained about the same even after consecutive nights of restricted sleep.

In a related study in Australia, Grace Vincent, a PhD student at Deakin University reported:

The firefighters report [that while working on actual fires they get] only about four to five hours sleep per night. 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.

This is consistent with research in the United states, in Technology and Development Publication, Wildland Firefighter Health and Safety Report, Issue Number 13, Summer 2009:

…Sleeping in fire camp can be a challenge. Noise from generators, vehicles, and other firefighters all contribute to sleeplessness. Because almost all wildland firefighters need to sleep either in fire camps or in spike camps, they sleep in tents, on the ground, and in hot, smoky, and dusty conditions. Shift work interferes with sleep, especially for those on night shift.

Sleep log data were collected on members of five incident management teams at fire camps in California and Montana during 2008. [Note from Bill: this data appears to be from overhead team members in fire camp, not “tactical athletes” out in the field.] Data for 140 team members (36 percent female, 64 percent male) indicated that they averaged 6.1 hours of sleep, ranging from 3.5 to 9.0 hours per night. On average, team members went to bed at 9:30 p.m. They reported being awakened an average of 2.2 times per night, awakening from zero to six times per night. When team members were asked to rate the quality of their sleep, the average was 6.6 on a 10-point scale. Nearly one-fourth (23.8 percent) reported feeling tired when they woke, while 53.6 percent felt somewhat rested, 20.2 percent felt rested, and 2.4 percent felt very rested.

Eight hours of rest between work periods is inadequate because only 50 to 75 percent of the rest period is devoted to sleep. Thus it is advisable to have longer rest periods (10 to 14 hours) so workers have time for adequate sleep.

Total sleep deprivation for 1 week has led to cognitive impairment when work requires multitasking. In driving, accidents increase as sleep duration is decreased. In tasks requiring judgment, risky behaviors emerge when sleep is limited to 5 hours per night.

Behavioral alertness and a range of cognitive functions, including sustained attention, and working memory deteriorate when nightly sleep is limited to between 4 and 7 hours. Decisionmaking skills, such as the ability to assess risk, assimilate changing information, and revise strategies to solve problems based on new information are likely to suffer.

Eight hours of rest between work periods is inadequate because only 50 to 75 percent of the rest period is devoted to sleep. Thus it is advisable to have longer rest periods (10 to 14 hours) so workers have time for adequate sleep.

What about naps?

The same publication recommended naps when possible, but the length is important:

Naps restore alertness, enhance performance, and reduce the risk of mistakes. To avoid waking up groggy and exhausted, workers should nap for 20 to 30 minutes OR for longer than 90 minutes. A one-hour nap places you in the middle of deep sleep, making it difficult to wake up. You will be disoriented and clumsy, might make poor decisions, and could be at risk of an injury. A 20-minute nap ends before you descend into deep sleep; a 90-minute nap catches you rising out of deep sleep.

Two killed in South Australia bushfire

From 9News:

“At least two people are dead and 13 people remain in hospital, five of them in serious or critical conditions, after yesterday’s devastating Pinery bushfire in South Australia.

South Australian premier Jay Weatherill confirmed “grave fears” were held for more people, with the full cost of the blaze still to unfold.

Watch the TODAY Show [for live stream occasional coverage of] the latest fire updates.

“We can’t be sure we have identified every single person in the fireground,” Mr Weatherill told a press conference this morning.

A 56-year-old woman was killed in a car in Hamley Bridge, while the body of 69-year-old man was found in a paddock in Pinery. Their families have been notified.  Thirteen people remain in hospital, five of those of whom are in serious or critical conditions. One of those has burns to around 80 percent of their body. At least two of those injured

At least 16 homes have been destroyed.”

New EPA rule could benefit prescribed fire

Below is an excerpt from an article at the Rural County Representatives of California website.


“The U.S. Environmental Protection Agency has released its draft amendments to the Exceptional Events Rule, and have included as a companion a draft Guidance on Preparing Exceptional Events Demonstrations for Wildfire Events that May Influence Ozone Concentrations (Guidance).  The Guidance provides methodology for air agencies to differentiate wildfire events from other planned fire events, such as prescribed burns, and to make the preparation and demonstration for these events more efficient.  

The Guidance has been released in response to concerns by stakeholders, including RCRC, that the National Ambient Air Quality Standards for ozone finalized earlier this year will essentially eliminate the use of prescribed burning as a method of fuels treatment in forest management projects.  The Exceptional Events Rule (Rule) allows for local and state air agencies to demonstrate events that they feel should be excluded from air quality data in their regulatory decisions.  Comments on the Rule amendments and draft Guidance are due by January 19, 2016, and can be accessed here.”


More information from the EPA about this issue.

National Geographic interviews Stephen Pyne about pyrophobia

Michelle Nijhuis interviewed Stephen Pyne about wildland fire management in the United States and his book that was recently released. Below is an excerpt from the article in National Geographic in which the term “pyrophobia” is used.


…In his new book Between Two Fires, Pyne examines the roots of the U.S. wildfire crisis. He finds that while the Forest Service and other agencies have long recognized that frequent, relatively small fires can reduce the risk of large, catastrophic burns, they have been unable to restore a natural cycle of fire to the forest.

Speaking from his home office in Arizona, Pyne reflected on this impasse. “If we keep fighting a war with fire, three things are going to happen,” he says. “We’re going to spend a lot of money, we’re going to take a lot of casualties, and we’re going to lose.”

Question: In the first half of the 20th century, you write, the U.S. Forest Service suffered from “pyrophobia”—it tried to suppress all wildfires. Where did that policy come from?

Pyne: The science of forestry grew up in temperate Europe—France and Germany particularly—and there, unlike most parts of the world, there’s no natural basis for fire. Fire was seen as a human problem, caused by people, and that attitude was exported to foresters in the United States.

In 1910, when the Forest Service was just a fledgling agency, a fire called the Big Blowup, or the Big Burn, blew over the Northern Rockies. It burned more than three million acres, and killed 78 firefighters in one afternoon. It traumatized the agency, scarring a whole generation of personnel. The Forest Service became convinced that if only it had the resources, it could control all fires…


Last week at Wildfire Today we had an excerpt from the book, Between Two Fires.