The Stress of Fire Fighting - Implications for Long Term Health Outcomes

Presentation at Research Forum of the 2012 Bushfire CRC and AFAC Annual Conference.

Background: Each year staff from fire and rescue emergency services routinely endure significant psychological and environmental stress exposure on the job to ensure public safety. While much has been done to improve our understanding of the physiological effects of exposure to these conditions, little has been done to quantify the total amount of stress (psychological and physiological) that firefighters are exposed to during wildfire suppression. Such knowledge is critical for managing our fire-fighters' health and well-being, as chronic exposure to stress is a contributing factor to cardiovascular diseases (1); which are highly prevalent in fire-fighting populations (2). Therefore the aim of the present study was to explore whether fire-fighters experienced a change in inflammatory markers following repeated days of wildfire suppression tasks.

Methods: Twelve male fire-fighters (age 29 ± 11yrs) participated in two consecutive days of live-fire prescribed burn operations in Ngarkat National Park, South Australia. Typical work tasks included lighting burns, patrolling containment lines, suppressing spot fires, and operating vehicles.

Results: A number of the inflammatory markers measured (including IL-1β, IL-6, & TNFα) were significantly altered across the course of a shift. Fire-fighters' inflammation levels were also significantly higher on day two of their suppression work. This finding implies that there was a compounding effect of repeated exposure to these stressors (e.g. heat and smoke exposure) which could have considerable implications for managing firefighter’s health and well-being over a multi-day campaign.

Conclusion: Further research is required to see which fire ground stressor (e.g., heat, smoke, long working hours, sleep deprivation) or combination of stressors is causing the rise in firefighters' inflammation across consecutive work shifts. Thereafter, mitigation strategies can be trialled to reduce inflammation and risk of illness in our fire-fighting personnel.

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