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.

White House announces efforts to mitigate effects of climate change on wildfires in urban interface

On Monday the White House announced several initiatives to mitigate the effects of climate change on fires in the wildland-urban interface (WUI). Vice President Biden appeared briefly at a meeting in the Executive Office Building with 20 fire chiefs and emergency managers from the western United States.

“I can’t prove any one fire is a consequence of climate change. But you don’t have to be a climatologist, you don’t have to be a nuclear engineer to understand that things have changed, they’ve changed rapidly,” the Vice President told the group. “The bottom line is your job is getting a hell of a lot more dangerous.”

At least 37 wildland fire chiefs and professional fire associations have signed on to a commitment, according to the White House, “to ensure that firefighters have the information, training and resources required to face the current and growing threats that climate impacts are having at the WUI, and to ensure community resilience by encouraging wildland fire prevention and mitigation practices by property owners, communities, and local governments across the country”.

The administration also announced the release of a study of the Waldo Canyon Fire that destroyed 344 homes in Colorado Springs in 2012, titled, A Case Study of a Community Affected by the Waldo Fire – Event Timeline and Defensive Actions (it can be downloaded here, but is a large file). The report covers firefighting tactics, how structures were ignited, defensible space, and how the fire spread, but oddly does not address to any significant extent the management, coordination, and cooperation between agencies, which was one of the largest issues. (We looked at this report in more detail in another article on Wildfire Today.)

Still another wildland fire related initiative announced Monday was the release of a report commissioned by the National Science and Technology Council, titled Wildland Fire Science and Technology Task Force Final Report. The task force was comprised of 28 representatives of federal agencies with any interest or responsibility, however fleeting, for land management or wildland fire.

The group’s primary recommendation was that a standing Federal Fire Science Coordination Council be established to:

  • ensure regular exchange among the leaders of those Federal organizations that either produce or use fire science;
  • strengthen coordination and collaboration among the organizations that produce wildland-fire science and technology;
  • establish mechanisms to systematically assess user needs and priorities for science, research, and technology support; and
  • define national-level needs for Federal fire science in support of the fire-management community

Wildfire briefing, October 26, 2015

Oregon declares wildfire season to be over

Bald Butte area fire

A fire in the Bald Butte area started near Springfield, Oregon October 10 when a burning car ignited vegetation above Forest Service Road 23. Dry fuels and gusty winds left 24 acres of burnt timber and brush on national forest lands. Oregon Department of Forestry photo by Greg Wagenblast.

The Oregon Department of Forestry has declared the 2015 wildfire season to be over. Rain and the arrival of cool, moist weather patterns prompted the declaration as of 12:01 a.m. Saturday. Oregon experienced a third consecutive difficult wildfire season this year. As of Sept. 11, total wildfire costs totaled more than $211 million in Oregon, according to the Oregon Department of Forestry. (That figure may include costs incurred by all agencies in the state, including federal, not just the ODF.)

The Oregon state government has an insurance policy with Lloyd’s of London which provides up to $25 million of state government fire suppression costs that exceed $50 million. The $3.5 million cost of the policy is split between the state and private timberland owners.

Board approves design for Yarnell Hill Fire memorial

The Yarnell Hill Memorial Site Board has approved a conceptual design for a memorial to commemorate the site where 19 members of the Granite Mountain Hotshots were entrapped by fire and killed June 30, 2013. According to the Daily Courier, the design by architect Bill Gauslow “consists of 19 white marble crosses, each placed where a man fell, surrounded by 19 low walls, spaced a short distance apart, and built of rip-rap rock.” The memorial would be placed at the fatality site which will be purchased by the Arizona State Parks department. Interpretive signs, one for each of the 19 firefighters, would also be placed every 1/10 mile along the 1.9 mile trail from the parking lot to the memorial site.

Researchers think fires were more common 300 million years ago

Scientists from the Department of Earth Sciences at Royal Holloway, University of London together with colleagues from the USA, Russia and China, have discovered that forest fires across the globe were more common between 300 and 250 million years ago than they are today. This is thought to be due to a higher level of oxygen in the atmosphere at that time.

Full text of the research article.

Landfill near nuclear waste site has been burning for six years

From the Chicago Tribune:

Beneath the surface of a St. Louis-area landfill lurk two things that should never meet: a slow-burning fire and a cache of Cold War-era nuclear waste, separated by no more than 1,200 feet.

Government officials have quietly adopted an emergency plan in case the smoldering embers ever reach the waste, a potentially “catastrophic event” that could send up a plume of radioactive smoke over a densely populated area near the city’s main airport.

Although the fire at Bridgeton Landfill has been burning since at least 2010, the plan for a worst-case scenario was developed only a year ago and never publicized until this week, when St. Louis radio station KMOX first obtained a copy…

Scientist discovers method for reducing cheatgrass

Ann Kennedy

Ann Kennedy, a soil scientist with the Agricultural Research Service. ARS photo.

A soil scientist working for the Agriculture Research Service has discovered a naturally occurring bacteria that could kill cheatgrass, or at least reduce the amount of the non-native species.

Cheatgrass out-competes native grasses by establishing a deep root system that grows early in the summer robbing the moisture that is needed by other species. It then dies in a thick mass that becomes fuel for large, intense wildfires. The invasion of cheatgrass over large swaths of the West is one of the reasons we have more large fires.

Below is an excerpt from an article in the New York Times about the work being done by Ann Kennedy of the Agricultural Research Service.


“…Dr. Kennedy’s hunt for a cheatgrass killer has been nearly 30 years in the making. In 1986, she was investigating yellowed wheat in the Palouse country of eastern Washington State when she found some bacteria that appeared to inhibit the number of shoots that the wheat sent skyward, but not the wheat plant’s overall yield; the plant just made bigger kernels. Dr. Kennedy wondered if a bacterium could be used to frustrate weeds instead.

With help from undergraduates at Washington State University, where she is an adjunct professor, Dr. Kennedy tested 25,000 bacteria she took from nearby farm fields. Her goal was to find ones that satisfied a wish list of ideal attributes such as hindering cheatgrass while not affecting wheat. She likened the search to picky online dating.

The researcher finally settled on two strains of Pseudomonas fluorescens, a huge species of bacteria that is present throughout the natural world. Most of its strains perform beneficial functions in the environment.

In long-term field trials around the inland Pacific Northwest, including Hanford Reach National Monument in Washington State, Dr. Kennedy’s bacteria reduced the amount of cheatgrass in test plots by about half within three years of a single application.

“We get it down to near zero weeds within about five or six years,” Dr. Kennedy said, as other plants recover and grow more competitive. The bacteria also dispatch two other invasive plants, medusahead and jointed goatgrass. The latest findings will be published within the next year, she said…”

Researchers attempt to quantify how climate change will affect wildfire seasons

Future Very Large Fires wildfires

The projected percentage increase in the number of “very large fire weeks”—weeks in which conditions are favorable to the occurrence of very large fires—by mid-century (2041-2070) compared to the recent past (1971-2000). (NOAA)

Researchers are predicting that beginning 26 years from now the number of weeks in which very large fires could occur will increase by 400 to 600 percent in portions of the northern great plains and the Northwest. Many other areas in the West will see a 50 to 400 percent increase.

If they are correct, the effects of climate change are not generations away. Firefighters starting out today will be dealing with this on a large scale during their careers.

Warming due to increasing greenhouse gas emissions will likely increase the potential for ‘very large fires’—the top 10 percent of fires, which account for a majority of burned areas in many regions of the United States. Climate change is expected to both intensify fire-friendly weather conditions, as well as lengthen the season during which very large fires tend to spread.

The potential for very large fire events is also expected to increase along the southern coastline and in the forests around the Great Lakes, although the number of events along the northern tier of the country should only increase moderately given the historically low potential for these events.

For this study, researchers considered the average results of 17 climate model simulations to examine how the potential for very large fires is expected to change. Future projections* were based on a higher-emissions scenario called RCP 8.5, which assumes continued increases in carbon dioxide emissions.

Along with the elevated potential for very large fires across the western US in future decades, other climate modeling studies have projected increases in fire danger and temperature, and decreased precipitation and relative humidity during the fire season. The increased potential for these extreme events is also consistent with an observed increase in the number of very large fires in recent decades.

In addition, scientists have detected trends toward overall warming, more frequent heat waves, and diminished soil moisture during the dry season. The combination of these climate conditions and historic fire suppression practices that have led to the build-up of flammable debris have likely led to more frequent large fire events.

At this very moment, more than 56 large wildfires are burning uncontained throughout the West, putting homes, lives, and livelihoods at risk. The smoke created by these fires exacerbates chronic heart and lung diseases while also degrading visibility and altering snowmelt, precipitation patterns, water quality, and soil properties. In addition to public health impacts, projected trends in extreme fire events have important implications for terrestrial carbon emissions and ecosystems.

The authors of the study also note that these findings could place a burden on national and regional resources for fighting fires. Fire suppression costs in the U.S. have more than doubled in recent decades, exceeding $1 billion per year since the year 2000, the National Interagency Fire Center reports. The vast majority of that money is spent on large incidents.

climate change predicted fire seasons

The research was conducted by government employees at taxpayer expense, funded by NOAA, the U.S. Forest Service, and two universities. The authors were: Barbero, R.; Abatzoglou, J.T.; Larkin, N.K.; Kolden, C.A.; and Stocks, B. The title: “Climate change presents increased potential for very large fires in the contiguous United States”. It was published in Australia in the International Journal of Wildland Fire (copies available for $25).

We checked with which posts copies of government-funded research, and were told by Michael Tjoelker, “Unfortunately, due to copyright issues we are not able to distribute full text versions of Journal articles.” However, Renaud Barbero, one of the authors, sent us a copy.

Thanks and a tip of the hat go out to Bill.