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.

Research links wildfire smoke with cardiac arrest in men

smoke prescribed fire firefighter

A firefighter is enveloped in smoke while working on a prescribed fire in Hot Springs, SD, March 30, 2013. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Researchers in Australia have found a link between smoke from bushfires and cardiac arrest in men over 35 in the population of metropolitan Melbourne. We would like to see a study done of wildland firefighters who breathe far more smoke than the residents of Melbourne.

Below is an excerpt from

Men over 35 have an increased risk of cardiac arrest if exposed to poor quality air from bushfires, a new study has found.

Monash University research using data from Ambulance Victoria’s Victorian Ambulance Cardiac Arrest Registry (VACAR) investigated the links between out-of-hospital cardiac arrests and bushfire smoke exposure in metropolitan Melbourne during the 2006-07 bushfire season.

The study, published in the latest edition of Environmental Health Perspectives, found an association between exposure to forest fire smoke and an increase in the rate of out-of-hospital cardiac arrests.

Monash University researchers led by Dr Martine Dennekamp, Department of Epidemiology and Preventive Medicine, saw greater increases in the number of men over 35 years old experiencing cardiac arrests but did not see a significant association in women over 35.

Dr Dennekamp said exposure to smoke from forest fires was a significant health issue in many countries, and it was important to raise community awareness.

“The problem is likely to get worse in the future, as we can expect fires to become both more frequent and more severe,” Dr Dennekamp said.

The state and federal governments not only employ the most wildland firefighters in the United States, but they would also be the ones to fund research like this. One would think they would have a disincentive to discover environmental conditions on the job that adversely affect the health of their employees. Don’t ask the question if you don’t want to know the answer, right? Mitigating the hazard of smoke for firefighters on a wildfire would be extremely difficult. But the least these employers should do is determine exactly the nature and scope of the hazard, and support their employees, and former employees, who suffer from life threatening diseases caused by their jobs.

There have been some papers written and some research has been completed on wildfire smoke, but what is needed is a thorough long term study on wildland firefighters conducted by epidemiologists. Something we first called for in 2010.

A very well known and respected Hotshot Superintendent advised me to frequently complete a CA-1 accident form after breathing lots of smoke on a fire. If you don’t, perhaps 10, 20, or 30 years later it might be hard to convince your employer that one or more of the following conditions were caused by your job: leukemia, testicular cancer, lung cancer, brain cancer, bladder cancer, ureter cancer, colorectal cancer, and non-Hodgkins’s lymphoma. All of those are recognized by the British Columbia government as an occupational hazard for firefighters; they are called presumptive cancers. But the United States government does not.

Other articles on Wildfire Today tagged cancer and firefighter health.

Former firefighter sues fire truck manufacturers for hearing loss

From the New York Post:

A former FDNY firefighter is suing several fire truck manufacturers for $150,000, claiming he’s suffered permanent, “irreversible” hearing loss because the sirens in the engines he rode were too loud.

Curtis O’Steen, who served from 1966 to 1981, said the companies sold trucks and engines that were in “defective condition” and didn’t protect firefighters from the shrill sirens.

“The crew compartments of the vehicles lacked sufficient sound insulation or other noise dampening measures that would lower the intense noise,” according to the recently filed Manhattan Supreme Court lawsuit.

O’Steen, who lives three hours north of New York City in Delaware County, is also suing company Federal Signal whose “Q-Siren” and “e-Q2B” sirens were used on the fire trucks.

UPDATED at 3:45 p.m. MST, March 3, 2015:

After having to remove two comments that violated our guidelines for comments, I feel compelled to add to this post.

I have no idea if the firefighter suffered a degradation in his hearing caused by sirens. Anyone can sue almost anyone for almost anything. And if they choose to use the court system, it does not mean they will win their suit.

However, it is a fact that some sirens produce noise levels that exceed the limits issued by OSHA and the NFPA. Examples of similar issues about sirens are here, here, and here.

Study finds firefighters more likely to get two types of cancer

According to a recently published study, firefighters in three major municipal fire departments were more likely to be diagnosed with lung cancer and leukemia than the general population.

Researchers examined the firefighting exposure and medical histories of 20,000 firefighters with over 1,300 cancer-related deaths and 2,600 cancer incidence cases in Chicago, Philadelphia, and San Francisco who were on duty between the years 1950 and 2009. This was one of the largest studies of its kind, and was the first to relate the time elapsed during fire runs to cancer risk.

Among eight types of cancers examined, they found slight, but statistically significant positive exposure–responses for lung cancer and leukemia risk. The researchers wrote:

These findings contribute to the evidence of a causal association between firefighting exposures and cancer.

The study did not address the health effects on wildland firefighters who, unlike structural firefighters, do not have access to an effective breathing apparatus to provide them clean air to inhale into their lungs. There could also be significant differences between the harmful effects of vegetation smoke and that produced by materials in structure fires.

Some wildland firefighters, especially those on hand crews, are routinely exposed to smoke-filled air for hours each day when assigned to a large fire, sometimes for 14 days. At other times they can be stationed in a smoky environment 24 hours a day for weeks at a time when inversions trap smoke. This frequently occurs in northwestern California, for example on the Six Rivers, Klamath, and Shasta-Trinity National Forests. In those cases even non-firefighters working in administrative positions at the Incident Base have been adversely affected by breathing contaminated air.

As we wrote in January, 2011:

There needs to be a concerted effort to conduct a similar study on wildland firefighters. It should be led by a physician/epidemiologist and should evaluate the long term health and occurrence of cancer and other diseases among wildland firefighters. There is a lot of grant money out there and it should be possible to get some of it pointed towards this overlooked niche of firefighting.

Other articles on Wildfire Today tagged cancer and firefighter health.

Yarnell Hill Fire survivor pushes for creation of a “healing center”

Biden, Brendan McDonough, Janice Brewer

Brendan McDonough, Yarnell Hill Fire survivor, speaks in Prescott, Arizona at the July 9, 2013 memorial service for the 19 firefighters that died on the fire. Vice President Joe Biden and Arizona Governor Janice Brewer are on the left and right, respectively. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Brendan McDonough watched from a distance as the other 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots became entrapped and died June 30, 2013 on the Yarnell Hill Fire south of Prescott, Arizona. Now, according to an article in the USA Today, he still struggles with stress-related problems. No longer a firefighter but working for the Wildland Firefighter Foundation, he wants to “create a non-profit organization to fulfill a dream of building a “healing center” in Prescott where first-responders, including troubled wildfire crews and their families, can seek treatment.”

The article’s main focus is a topic that rarely gets discussed in the world of wildland fire — the day to day psychological strains that firefighters face which are similar to those experienced by warfighters. The military has a highly developed program for treating post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), but the land management agencies, with a primary focus of growing trees, cleaning campgrounds, and managing visitors and non-native plants, have done little, effectively, to deal with a shocking suicide rate, for example.

The excellent article gives several examples of how stress is negatively affecting some of our firefighters. Below is an excerpt:

…Wildland Firefighter Foundation Executive Director Vicki Minor — Burk Minor’s mother — estimates that as many as one in four such firefighters struggle with emotional trauma.

She says her organization counted six firefighter suicides during 2013. If accurate, it suggests a rough suicide rate of 17 per 100,000, far higher than the national average and similar to the pace of these deaths in the military.

“Our government, our fire officials, the Forest Service, Bureau of Land Management, they’re really good at taking care of the land and they know how to fight fire,” Vicki Minor says. “They don’t know how to take care of their people.”

Federal workers get free visits to a contracted private counselor, but many firefighters complain these providers are not schooled in PTSD treatment, Vicki Minor says. “I’ve had several of these men say that they had to pay for a therapist out of their own pocket,” she says.

The Forest Service recently published pocket-sized pamphlets with tips on traumatic stress and resilience. But the guides offer nothing about where to seek help if necessary, except to cite websites from the Department of Veterans Affairs and private suicide support groups.

Forest Service Fire Management Director Harbour says the deaths of the 19 Prescott firefighters were a wake-up call on the emotional stress firefighters may incur. “How do we deal with what we carry after we go through a traumatic incident?” he asks.

He and his staff have turned to the Marine Corps for ideas about building emotional resilience in firefighters. He urged in a briefing paper to senior officials that “we have developed wonderful new tools to help physically protect firefighters. Now is the time to ‘build a better brain!'”

He and his staff have turned to the Marine Corps for ideas about building emotional resilience in firefighters. He urged in a briefing paper to senior officials that “we have developed wonderful new tools to help physically protect firefighters. Now is the time to ‘build a better brain!'”

The land management agencies should consider developing an experimental program with the Department of Veterans Affairs that would take advantage of their existing PTSD treatment facilities, such as the one at the VA Hospital in Hot Springs, South Dakota, the “Post Traumatic Stress Disorder Residential Rehabilitation Program”. Send a few firefighters with PTSD symptoms to a facility such as this and then evaluate the possible benefits.

Yarnell Hill Fire Honor Escort

On July 7, 2013, 19 hearses carried the remains of the Granite Mountain Hotshots back to Prescott, Arizona. Photo by Bill Gabbert.

Thanks and a hat tip go out to Kelly.

Firefighters: four recommendations for eating, drinking, and working out


Dr. Brent Ruby is a professor at the University of Montana who studies extreme physiology, including how wildland firefighting impacts the body. In 2011 we wrote an article titled The myth of drinking water which included the results of some of Dr. Ruby’s research, as well as his thoughts about the firefighter hyperthemia fatality on the CR 337 fire in Texas.

Men’s Journal has an interesting article featuring Dr. Ruby and some of his recommendations for firefighters. Below is an excerpt:


“Workouts should mirror job demands.

Rather than banging out a 10k in featherweight running sneakers every morning, crewmembers should go for long hikes on steep trails wearing a heavy backpack and clunky boots. “Hiking with a heavy load – that’s job-specific aerobic training.”

Eat constantly.

Ruby has found that to be safely working at peak condition, they should consume 4,500 calories a day with a number of “eating episodes.” If what’s supposed to be an eight-hour shift turns into a 12-hour shift, Hotshots should have easy access to quality calories. “They need an elaborate food plan that accommodates unpredictable shifts. We envision giving them ownership of the menu, where they can mix and match 12 items,” he says.

Aim for variety in calories.

Ruby suggests packing a high-quality red meat for protein; several types of fresh fruit; carbs in the form of oats and rice; carrots and broccoli for diversity; and loads of dried fruits and nuts. “They need foods that satisfies and doesn’t leave them focusing on how hungry they still are,” Ruby says. “Their job is fire suppression. As soon as they’re distracted from fire suppression, other risks crop up.”

Drink water – and lots of it.

The best way to think about hydration, according to Ruby, is in terms of “water turnover” over a 24 hour period, or how much water you take in and dump out through sweat and urine. On average, the water turnover for Hotshots is 7 to 9.5 liters a day. “You have to make sure you’re taking in somewhere in that range – probably a liter more than you’re putting out,” he says. Being sufficiently hydrated alone, however, isn’t going to stop you from overheating in a high-stress situation, warns Ruby.”