BUSHFIRE: Emergency services swing into action to get control of yet another bushfire.
BUSHFIRE: Emergency services swing into action to get control of yet another bushfire. Max Fleet

Sleepless in fire battle, volunteers in the line of fire

LACK of sleep during firefighting season is putting the lives of 1503 Ipswich volunteer firies on the line.

Researchers and emergency service agencies are trying to find ways to shorten shifts during peak bushfire periods so our yellow army can get enough rest.

A study into the work and sleeping habits of the nation's paid and volunteer fire brigade members shows the longer they are on the ground, the more impaired their decision-making abilities become.

CQ University professor Sally Ferguson and her fellow researchers used laboratory-based fire scene simulations to investigate what firefighters went through during bushfire suppressions.

The firefighters spent 50 minutes at a time on a range of tasks including raking and clearing ground, carrying or dragging heavy hoses and putting out spot fires.

They then completed tests examining how the physical and cognitive impacts of the work changed their perception, attention to detail, hand-eye coordination and their driving skills.

Prof Ferguson said the research was necessary because changes in climate meant firefighters would have less time to rest as fires became more frequent and more dangerous.

"They are probably going to get deployed more frequently, which means less periods of rest between disasters," she said.

Prof Ferguson said it was clear sleep deprivation impacted firefighters' cognitive abilities.

"We know from the laboratory tests that sleep restriction and sleep loss impact their ability to respond quickly, to make decisions, take on new knowledge and maintain vigilance.

"Reaction time and vigilance are really important for fireground activity," she said.

"We found they didn't move around very much because they were sleep deprived.

"That does have implications for agencies - they need to make sure that firefighters, in their rest breaks, are getting hydrated - that they are getting away from the firegrounds and having a cool down."

Prof Ferguson said some fire agencies Australia-wide would use the study results to determine new ways of working during natural disasters.

Rural Fire Brigades Association general manager Justin Choveaux conceded that many volunteers pushed themselves to the edge when their communities were at risk.

"No one gets enough sleep when their community is under threat," Mr Choveaux said.

"We try to limit shifts on the fireground or for disaster recovery to eight hours, yet in the initial stages of a large incident volunteers can far exceed this, especially when their community is under threat.

"Could it be managed better? Of course.

"We should always be looking for ways to better support the brigades and the communities they defend with better and safer practices."

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