Firefighter research needs you
This article appeared in the Summer 2013 edition of Fire Australia magazine.
A Bushfire CRC collaborative project aims to provide fire agencies around Australia with critical intelligence about how fireground conditions affect firefighters’ ability to work safely and efficiently. The project needs volunteer firefighters to participate in scenario simulations to help with the study.
Firefighters face constant challenges on the fireground. Exposure to smoke and high temperatures, coupled with little sleep, can affect performance. But what are the full impacts of these conditions on firefighters, and how can the risks be managed? A national research project, part of the Bushfire CRC’s Managing the Threat Program, undertaken by researchers from Deakin University in Melbourne and Central Queensland University in Adelaide, is helping to answer these questions.
The project is led jointly by Dr Brad Aisbett and Associate Professor Sally Ferguson. Testing in simulated scenarios has already started, with participants enlisted through support from Victoria’s Country Fire Authority, South Australia’s Country Fire Service, the Australia Capital Territory’s Parks Conservation and Land, the Tasmania Fire Service and the New South Wales Rural Fire Service. The assistance of these agencies was integral to the design of the simulation, ensuring the study replicates real conditions as closely as possible.
The critical missing element now is volunteer firefighters. The research team is seeking volunteers from all fire and land management agencies to participate in the project with testing scheduled throughout 2013.
“Every summer, firefighters face extremely tough conditions,” noted Dr Aisbett.
“They’re awake for long periods of time, working in hot and smoky conditions. But when it comes to developing guidelines around safe working conditions in those environments, fire agencies can’t draw on specific job-relevant research.
“The available research looks at only one stressor at a time. That is, in isolation, what is the effect of exposure to heat, smoke or sleep deprivation? But firefighters face all of these conditions together.”
The project, nicknamed ‘Awake, Smoky and Hot’, is investigating the individual and combined effects of sleep deprivation, heat and smoke on the physical and cognitive aspects of firefighting. For fire agencies, managing the health and safety of firefighters during bushfire deployment requires information about the effects of exposure to these stressors.
This bushfire-specific research is critical to develop evidence-based strategies to preserve the health, safety and productivity of firefighters fighting bushfires. Importantly, the goal is not to remove firefighters from the fireground; it is to provide fire agencies with the best available evidence that they can use to manage the risks to their firefighters.
Associate Professor Ferguson highlights the unique design of the project, which simulates a three-day campaign fire scenario.
“We have replicated jobs as closely as possible. As a result, volunteers for the project will complete research tasks that look almost like jobs they undertake when fighting a bushfire, like dragging heavy hoses, rake hoe work and hose rolling—all in full firefighting uniform.
“The tasks are repeated each day of the study, both to simulate a bushfire deployment as closely as possible, and to measure how performance changes over a number of days.
“Critically, we can control the variables and repeat them to ensure validation of the research,” said Associate Professor Ferguson.
Coordinating the research simulation is Dr Bradley Smith, a post-doctoral research fellow at Central Queensland University. Dr Smith noted that in addition to physical performance, the study measures changes in both physiology and cognitive function.
“We measure how exposure to the combined effects of heat and smoke, coupled with sleep deprivation, impacts on firefighters’ cognitive performance such as memory, reaction time and concentration,” said Dr Smith.
“Firefighters need to be alert and switched on all the time. They’re often placed under not just physical strain but mental strain as well, and they are required to make split-second decisions that could impact on themselves, their colleagues, the environment and those they are working hard to protect.”
Researchers will assess the physiological changes that occur during physical tasks such as repetitive tyre dragging and tyre pulling tasks, representative of the carry and drag actions that comprise the principal fireground tasks of hose advance and rake hoe work. This will provide real data that will help fire agencies manage their firefighters.
“We measure blood pressure, level of any dehydration, blood glucose levels, stress hormones, lung functionality, grip strength, static balance and carbon monoxide exposure,” added Dr Smith.
Sleep patterns are also measured and participants are asked to rate their effort, thermal sensation, motivation, feelings of hunger and food cravings throughout the simulation.
“An in-depth study incorporating experts in sleep, cognitive behaviour and exercise physiology has not been undertaken before. The collaboration between these fields is exciting,” said Dr Smith.
The findings from this research will provide an evidence base on which to develop specific training and guidelines to better assist the health and safety of firefighters. The benefits are already flowing directly to firefighters.
Neil Cooper, a Bushfire CRC lead end user and Manager of Fire Management at ACT Parks Conservation and Land agrees. Firefighters at Parks Conservation and Land participated in a research simulation in 2012, and Mr Cooper believes their involvement has already aided not just their own development, but the organisation’s as well.
“This study allowed our firefighters to be directly involved in a high-level research project of national significance,” said Mr Cooper.
“It was a great personal development opportunity for them, and gave them an insight into how the research would benefit not just themselves, but their colleagues and counterparts around the country.
“Through the participants, Parks Conservation and Land found the project to be an excellent way to disseminate the important health and safety information gained during the simulation throughout the organisation. As well as providing invaluable data to inform guidelines on keeping firefighters safe, the simulation was an excellent team-building exercise, which is a great value add, and one that I’m sure will be replicated in further research simulations.”
A volunteer firefighter who has participated in the simulation (but cannot be named due to research ethics) noted the research had a positive impact and highlighted the knowledge and understanding of the research team.
“The willingness [of the researchers] to help us [participants] understand why we were there and why we had to do specific exercises was outstanding,” noted the participant. “I know the hours and sweat that I put into the study will help me and my fellow firefighters in the field.”
Dr Smith echoed these thoughts. “Feedback we have received so far has been positive. Participants have been really satisfied with the research process, that the level of detail in the tasks is as accurate as possible and that they feel they have been involved in a worthwhile process.”
A number of simulations have already taken place, but many more are needed to gather enough data to inform the results.
The research team is seeking more volunteer firefighters from all national agencies. Simulations will take place in Adelaide and Melbourne in 2013, with the possibility of testing at other sites. The team is able to visit brigades in South Australia and Victoria to discuss the study.
More information about the ‘Awake, Smoky and Hot’ (or ASH) project, including expressions of interest in participating, is available by contacting Dr Bradley Smith on 08 8378 4528 or firstname.lastname@example.org.
Additionally, volunteers can register their interest in participating on the Central Queensland University website, http://tinyurl.com/akb3r7v.
More information is available on the project’s webpage.