Firefighter safety is a high priority for fire agencies. Battling fires in hot and smoky conditions is at times unsafe and unhealthy. Firefighters are subject to stressful conditions, in which fatigue and work capacity is affected by the erratic nature of work and rest cycles and the need for food and liquids.
Work environment issues plus physiological and psychological pressures are a constant factor. The ageing population, demographic variety and physical condition of the Australian volunteer firefighter presents a significant challenge to fire fighting agencies in improving safety conditions on the fire ground.
This research was led by David Nicholls at the Country Fire Authority and Dr Brad Aisbett at Deakin University.
“Despite a heavy reliance on volunteer firefighters in Australia, there has been limited research into the physical demands that they experience during bushfire suppression,” said Dr Aisbett. “Similarly, before this project the health and physical fitness of these volunteers had received little research attention.”
The project provided a quantified picture of the total fireground environment. Importantly, it provided a unique insight into the level of fitness of current firefighters and made scientifically based recommendations on the level of fitness required by bushfire fighters over a range of common tasks. This has been communicated to Australian and New Zealand firefighters at several annual conferences and national workshops.
To investigate the physical demands of bushfire suppression, the research measuredvolunteers’ heart rate, limb movement, and oxygen consumption during standard fireground activities, including unreeling and reeling fire hoses and advancing charged hoses. To measure the health and fitness of volunteer firefighters the research also measured important health indicators including resting blood pressure, blood cholesterol and glucose levels, and body fat levels, and cardiovascular fitness.
Sub projects were undertaken by PhD students at Deakin University. Matt Phillips’research comprehensively quantified the physical demands of Australian tanker-based bushfire suppression and identified the minimal level of physical fitness required to safely complete this work. This work earned Matt a top four placing in the 2009 CRC Association Early Career Scientist Award for innovative science.
A study by Jenni Raines investigated the effect of hydrating firefighters before, during and after live bushfire fighting shifts. Data was gathered from firefighters at several bushfires and also at the large burning experiments conducted by researchers in Program A at the Ngarkat Conservation Park in South Australia. This ground breaking work is now the basis for agencies to provide scientifically valid fluid consumption strategies for bushfire fighters.
Health and safety in the field
Photo (above) - Testing under way on the fireground at a research burn, Ngarkat Conservation Park, March 2008.