RFS volunteers being studied for their sleep patterns.
RFS volunteers being studied for their sleep patterns. SCOTT POWICK

Sleepless in the fire battle

NOT enough sleep during firefighting season is putting the lives of the 1883 volunteer firies on the Northern Rivers 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.

Sleeping habits of volunteers

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.

CQUniversity 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.

Less time to rest between fires

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 and vigilance important

"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 across Australia would use the study results to determine new ways of working during natural disasters.

12 hour shifts

In NSW, volunteer firefighters can be rostered on for 12-hour shifts, but the NSW Rural Fire Service tries to make sure they get a long break in between.

NSW RFS Deputy Commissioner Rob Rogers said the organisation was one of the best in the country at managing fatigue but many volunteers would go beyond the call of duty.

Mr Rogers said moving rural brigades onto an automated rostering system was just one way the organisation was fighting fatigue.

"They volunteer to do something and they take the success of that very personally," Mr Rogers said.

"So we have to try and make sure that we say, 'That's great but we need you to rest as well'.

"I'm not saying we're the best in the country but we are up there with the best as far as managing fatigue."

WHAT IS Post Traumatic Stress Disorder?

It is a severe and persistent mental health impairment following exposure to a single or multiple traumatic events.

It is believed to impact 10% of Australia's 80,000 firefighters, police and paramedics.

Symptoms involve mentally re-experiencing trauma; avoidance of triggering situations, insomnia and irritability.

Some medications can reduce symptoms of PTSD.

People with PTSD often also have major depressive disorder and alcohol or drug use problems.

SOURCE: The Black Dog Institute



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