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.

Fire vehicle rollovers — how serious a problem is it?

Engine 492 rollover accident

On August 8, 2013 Engine 492 from the Medicine Bow-Routt National Forest and Thunder Basin National Grasslands was involved in a rollover accident on Wyoming State Highway 450 southwest of Newcastle, Wyoming. Three firefighters were injured, one seriously.

The rollover of the U.S. Forest Service fire engine near Clovis, California July 12 that injured five firefighters, one seriously, is another reminder about how frequently wildland firefighters are injured in vehicle accidents.

Here are some snippets of data:

  • A study by Dick Mangan of Blackbull Wildfire Services found that between 1990 and 2009 the leading causes of death of wildland firefighters were: 1. aviation accidents; 2. vehicle accidents; 3. heart attacks/medical causes; and 4. burnovers. From 1990 to 2006, 71 firefighters died in vehicle accidents.
  • The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center reported that driving-related incidents was the leading category of incidents that were reported to the Center in 2014.
  • This is a very unscientific data set, but since we started Wildfire Today in January, 2008, we have reported 17 rollovers of fire vehicles that resulted in 44 injuries to firefighters working on or responding to a wildland fire. That does not include non-rollover vehicle accidents, rollovers of heavy equipment (of which there were quite a few), or accidents that occurred in Australia and Canada. Articles on Wildfire Today, 28 of them, tagged “rollover”.
engine rollover Forest Service oregon 2010

One person was injured when this engine rolled over in 2010 on the Bald Angel prescribed fire on the Wallowa Whitman National Forest near La Grande, Oregon.

What can be done to reduce the number of these injuries and fatalities?


The first thing that is always discussed in accident prevention is training. The most difficult factors to deal with in driving a fire engine are the weight, the center of balance (top-heavy), the physical stress of driving long distances or after a 14-hour shift, and the mental stress of driving an emergency vehicle. All of these are difficult, but not impossible, to train for. Some fire agencies have Engine Academies that actually put trainee drivers behind the wheel, which of course can be extremely beneficial. But it is not easy to train a driver how to react in a split second when they are faced with the sudden decision about possibly hitting the brakes, changing direction, neither of the two, or a combination of the two. Operating a top-heavy 12,000 or 26,000-pound vehicle limits your options. A quick flick of the steering wheel can initiate a rollover.

Driver’s qualifications

When I last worked for the National Park Service (NPS) in 2003 the agency had virtually no specific policy or qualification requirements for the drivers of smaller fire engines, such as a Type 6, other than having a standard state driver’s license. Or if they existed, they were not enforced. A person who had been hired off the street having never driven anything larger than an Austin Mini could be placed behind the wheel of a 15,000-pound top-heavy fire engine.

We checked with the NPS today, and spokesperson Christina Boehle told us that their requirements for driving fire vehicles are on pages 6-9 of Chapter 7 in Interagency Standards for Fire and Fire Aviation (Red Book). This publication includes policies for the Bureau of Land Management (BLM), U.S. Forest Service (USFS), U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS), and the National Park Service (NPS) and supplements other manuals the agencies have. The Bureau of Indian Affairs does not participate in the Red Book program.

In addition to holding a state driver’s license, all drivers covered by the Red Book have to take a defensive driving course. And, as required by Department of Transportation regulations, all drivers must obtain a Commercial Driver’s License (CDL) for operating vehicles weighing 26,001 pounds or more.

Other than defensive driving, no specific additional training is required by the Red Book for driving fire equipment, except for the BLM and USFS which require “driver training”. Those two agencies also complete paperwork to document driver qualifications.

The Engine Operator position has been removed from the Wildland Fire Qualification System Guide (310-1), but now it can be found in the Federal Wildland Fire Qualifications Supplement. The training requirements listed in the document for the position vary widely among the five federal land management agencies. The BIA does not even recognize the position, and on the other extreme is the BLM which requires seven training courses, only five of which are directly related to operating an engine. The FWS and the BLM require the Engine Academy or a BLM Engine Operator Course, respectively. There is also a Position Task Book for Engine Operator.

Seat belts

It almost seems too obvious to mention, but wearing seat belts is the one thing that every person in a vehicle can do to reduce injuries or save lives in a vehicle accident. Most federal fire land management agencies have policies requiring the use of seat belts.

A study by the Association for the Advancement of Automotive Medicine found that in 7.6 percent of fire truck crashes that were reported to the police some of the occupants were not wearing seat belts, and 74 percent of the fatal crashes involved the non-use of seat belts.

Seat belt use in fire truck crashes

Supervisors at all levels need to proactively ensure that firefighters in all types of vehicles, including crew carriers, wear seat belts.


You may have seen Austin Dillon’s horrific-looking crash in the July 5, 2015 NASCAR race. His car became airborne at about 180 mph and crashed into the fence, coming to an immediate stop. Then when it appeared to be over and the remains of the car were upside down, an out of control car hit it with force, causing it to spin around several times on its roof.

The car was barely recognizable as a car after the crash. The front one-third and the rear one-third were gone, but the integrity of the driver’s compartment and his seat remained intact. The only object in the interior that came loose was the radio. Mr. Dillon walked away with only a few bruises.

This shows what can be done to prevent injuries in a very serious vehicle crash. It is not practical to harden the cab of a fire engine to the degree seen in NASCAR, but there are steps that can be taken to prevent the roof from collapsing in a rollover, such as was seen when U.S. Forest Service Engine 392 rolled over in Wyoming in 2013 (see photo above).

The wildland fire agencies should fund research conducted by engineers to determine how to prevent the passenger compartments in their fire engines from collapsing in accidents.

Ensure that fire vehicles are not overweight

In the 1990s one federal land management agency was accepting new Type 6 engines from manufacturers that exceeded the Gross Vehicle Weight (GVW) the day they were delivered after being filled with water.

Adding thousands of extra pounds beyond the GVW to an already top-heavy vehicle can make it difficult to control, especially when making an evasive maneuver or a quick stop. The additional weight is also hard on suspension systems and can cause premature failure of various components.

While federal land management agencies have been guilty of overweight fire trucks, some local fire departments have had the same problem. Too many departments take a Ford F-150 or F-250 and add a very heavy tank and pump package, exceeding the manufacturer’s designed GVW.

A study by the National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health documented some extreme cases, including one where a military surplus tanker designed to carry gasoline was transporting 1,200 gallons of water primarily off road, which put the weight of the loaded vehicle approximately 7,000 pounds over the cross-country weight rating.

More information:

Analysis of Firetruck Crashes and Associated Firefighter Injuries in the United States
Simple Steps to Avoid Apparatus Rollovers
Preventing Death and Injuries of Fire Fighters Operating Modified Excess/Surplus Vehicles


Stick figure fireworks safety

I’m thinking the BLM did not waste a lot of money producing this 36-second public service announcement, but I like it, and it could be effective. Nicely done, BLM!


(UPDATE at 11:18 a.m. PT, July 1, 2015)

After we posted the video, Kevin Conran of the BLM left this comment:

Thank you for the compliments on our PSAs. As you surmised this was very low cost to produce. It was actually produced by a local high school student. We hosted a contest among the high school speech/communications classes and challenged them to produce PSAs aimed at reaching their age group.

USFWS employee receives award for suggestion to track firefighters with transmitter collars

Barton Rye award

FWS Branch Chief John Segar presents National Safety Award to Barton Rye Credit: Josh O’Connor, USFWS

Tallahasee, Florida – On May 7, the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service (FWS) presented its second annual National Fire Safety Award to Barton (Bart) Rye, Prescribed Fire/Fuels Technician from St Marks National Wildlife Refuge for a simple suggestion that helped direct a lost firefighter to safety during a prescribed fire.

The Award, presented by John Segar, FWS Chief, Branch of Fire Management from the National Interagency Fire Center, recognizes Rye for his innovative use of Global Positioning System (GPS) technology to more easily map, track and monitor the location of multiple firefighters, vehicles, and aircraft during large burns on the 70,000-acre refuge.

Rye suggested that his fire crew on foot and all-terrain vehicles (ATVs) carry GPS transmitter collars, like those worn by his hunting dogs, so that up to ten resources could be tracked in real-time by a Burn Boss on a single hand-held receiver. ATVs and dozers on southeastern forests commonly become high-centered on hard-to-spot stumps in heavy vegetation where they cannot be readily seen by others, risking the loss of life and/or equipment during fires.

transmitter collar

The refuge first tested the use of the collars last spring. When a firefighter unfamiliar with southeastern terrain walked into a sawgrass pond while igniting a burn and becoming disoriented in knee-deep water with grass over his head, the GPS device allowed the Burn Boss to verbally direct the firefighter out of harm’s way. In February, a helicopter working a 3800-acre burn carried a collar to allow immediate location of the aircraft in case of an accident.

transmitter collar

“Bart’s initiative added a level of safety that wasn’t there before and may very well lead to national implementation,” said Segar. “This system is off-the-shelf and simple to operate.”

The Refuge purchased two hand-held receivers — one each for a Burn Boss and Firing Boss — and a transmitting collar for each prescribed fire crew member. A single transmitter and hand-held receiver together cost about $500.

St. Marks National Wildlife Refuge along Florida’s Gulf Coast conducts 40-50 prescribed burns annually, averaging 300-400 acres each, to reduce the risk of wildfire and maintain fire-resilient landscapes.

firefighter tracking

Map showing the tracks of three firefighters on a prescribed fire, in green, red, and blue.

(All photos were provided by the FWS.)
(Note from Bill: The Garmin website has information about one of their tracking systems.)

2014 wildland fire incident summary

The Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center has released a summary of incidents that occurred on wildland fires in 2014. The document only includes incidents that were reported to the LLC. Unfortunately the LLC does not define the term “incident” but it appears to be a serious injury or accident on a wildland fire, perhaps including serious near misses.

Below we have a few graphic highlights. The complete report can be found HERE.

2014 wildland fire incidents by activity

2014 wildland fire incidents by activity. (click to enlarge)

The chart above represents wildland fire incidents from various agencies that were submitted to the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center (LLC) during 2014. Half of the physical training incidents were Rhabdomyolysis cases.

2014 wildland fire incidents by outcome

2014 wildland fire incidents by outcome (click to enlarge)

wildfire Vehicle rollovers by type of vehicleIt would be interesting to know how many of the rollovers of water tenders, engines, and crew carriers involved vehicles that were over the allowed weight (GVW) or were top-heavy. In other words — were they disasters waiting to happen.

Grass fire tactics and safety

In a comment regarding the earlier article about the fires in Logan County, Oklahoma, Dick suggested some videos that shed light on the subject of fighting fire in grass —  “Attack from the Black” and “Oh, it’s just a Grass Fire”. We found those videos.

The first one, below, is “Attack from the Black”, which covers the tactics and safety of suppressing grass fires. Produced by the Texas Forest Service, it is actually a series of six videos, with each one being one to seven minutes long. It was uploaded to YouTube in 2011. If you play the one below, it will automatically keep transitioning to the next until you have watched all six.

The next video is “Oh, it’s just a Grass Fire”, uploaded by the Wildland Fire Lessons Learned Center in 2011. Here is how it is described:

Because grass fires often burn in short, light fuels, some firefighters may tend to encounter them with their “guard down”—without taking adequate safety precautions. Using lessons learned from actual grass fire incidents, this video illustrates why such a mindset can have disastrous outcomes. Don’t believe it? Hear a severely burned firefighter explain what he now wants you to always remember.