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Study: Jumpers regressed over course of season

by by Sara Zaske, University of Idaho |

[This article originally appeared in Wildfire Today magazine.]

Wildland firefighters are working long shifts this summer all across the West. And they are getting really tired.

Randy Brooks knows exactly how tired. The University of Idaho professor is closely tracking 18 smokejumpers, with the help of advanced-motion monitors that use an algorithmic fatigue model originally developed for the U.S. military.

This is not just an academic exercise — Brooks is aiming to save lives.

"Wildland firefighters need to be alert and vigilant of their surrounding situation because something could happen at any moment," he said.

Both of Brooks' sons fight fires. And the need for great situational awareness hit close to home in 2015 when a fire shifted directions on one of his sons.

It started with a late-night text — his son, Bo Brooks, let him know the crew was heading to work the next day on the Twisp fire in north-central Washington. He was nervous because high winds were forecast.

The next day, Brooks got a phone call instead of his typical text.

"My son called me at 4 in the afternoon," Brooks said. "I knew something was wrong because they usually just text me to let me know they were all right."

This time everything was not all right. The winds kicked up suddenly, and the fire crew had to "bug out" – run out of an area as quickly and efficiently as possible. Not all of them made it. Three firefighters died and another was badly burned.

After the tragedy, some members of the team quit firefighting. Bo Brooks stayed on but wanted things to change. "He said, 'Dad, you're a forestry researcher — is there anything you can do to help us?' " Randy Brooks said.

So Brooks, who works in University of Idaho's College of Natural Resources, and Callie Collins, a doctoral student in environmental science, conducted a survey of more than 400 wildland firefighters. The majority indicated that the main contributors to accidents in fire operations were inadequate sleep and fatigue, both mental and physical.

The researchers followed the survey with a pilot study of nine firefighters to closely assess sleep, fatigue and body composition.

They outfitted the smokejumpers – firefighters who parachute from planes to battle wildland fires in remote areas – with Readibands. They're motion monitors made by Fatigue Science that keep detailed data on sleep and activity.

The data was then analyzed using the algorithm model developed by the U.S. Army Research Laboratory to obtain an "alertness score," which quantifies the wearers' reaction times and relative accident risk.

In the pilot study, Brooks and Collins found firefighters spent more than 42 percent of one month working in impaired conditions with reaction times slowed by as much as 34 to 100 percent – equivalent to having a blood-alcohol concentration of 0.05 to 0.11 or higher. That's on the cusp of the legal limit for driving at 0.08.

The researchers also had the firefighters' body composition measured, before and after the fire season, and looked at their hydration and diet. Despite their high level of physical activity, the smokejumpers maintained their weight but gained fat over the summer — and lost muscle mass.

Brooks and Collins believe this may be because of the quality of their diet, which is high in carbohydrates and sugar and lower in protein and healthy fats like those found in eggs, nuts and fish. They hope to test that hypothesis in future studies.

Always a challenging profession, wildland firefighting has become even more difficult in recent years as the wildfire season in the West continues to grow in intensity and duration. Today's fire season is about 30 days longer than it was three decades ago.

"It's like they used to be running a 100-yard dash 30 years ago and now they're running a marathon with the longer fire seasons," Brooks said.

And if they are running a firefighting marathon, he argues, the crews may need to eat and drink like elite athletes do as well.

This summer, Brooks doubled the sample size of his pilot study to 18 smokejumpers. He wants to expand the project further in the future, and nearly 200 firefighters have volunteered to participate in his studies. His research was only limited by the expense of the motion trackers, which cost close to $1,000 each at the start of the study.

Still, Brooks hopes whatever data he gathers will help make this dangerous profession safer.

"I think we need a paradigm shift in the way we think about fighting wildfires at all cost and place a greater emphasis on personal safety over protecting resources," Brooks said. "Trees grow back, homes can be rebuilt, but lives can't be replaced."