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Wildland Firefighter Health & Safety Report

Issue No. 13

Research

This section reviews project-related field studies conducted on wildland firefighters during the 2008 fire season. The studies were conducted by researchers and graduate students from the University of Montana Human Performance Laboratory in cooperation with MTDC and the Air Force Research Laboratories with support from the National Wildfire Coordinating Group.

Improved Lunches for Wildland Firefighters

Studies conducted by the University of Montana Human Performance Laboratory have shown that eating regularly throughout the workshift can benefit wildland firefighters, improve work capacity, increase total work, improve immune function, reduce recovery times, improve reaction times late in the day, reduce fatigue, and improve alertness. In 2008 the Human Performance Laboratory team tested the satisfaction of 100 firefighters with shift food lunches provided during 9 days of wildland firefighting. Shift food lunches included 10 to 14 food units, ranging from 100 to 300 kilocalories each (2,000 to 2,300 kilocalories per lunch). Survey and interview data were used to evaluate food preferences, overall satisfaction with the lunch, and work capacity.

Firefighters returned questionnaires for 57 percent of the 900 experimental shift food lunches that were prepared. Participants represented a broad spectrum of the wildland firefighting community by ethnicity (white, 77 percent; Hispanic, 10 percent; Native American, 11 percent); years of experience (average 6 years); age (average 27 years); and resource type (type 1 firefighter, 10.4 percent; type 2 firefighter, 69.9 percent; engine crew, 7.4 percent; incident management team member, 7.2 percent). Of the lunches, 90.8 percent included meat and 9.2 percent were vegetarian.

Participants said they ate the shift food items as suggested (4.2 times per shift, ranging from 1 time to 10 times per shift) and said that they liked the shift food lunches much better than the normal sack lunches. Most respondents believed that the lunches helped them work better (80.7 percent) and were easier to carry (77 percent). Results were similar, regardless of the firefighters' ethnicity, experience, or resource type and regardless of the type of lunch (vegetarian or meat).

This project shows that it is possible to prepare and deliver a shift food lunch at fire camp and that wildland firefighters recognize that the shift food lunch helps them perform their jobs better. Basic guidelines for these lunches should include:

  • A total of 2,000 to 2,500 kilocalories per lunch

  • A macronutrient breakdown of 55- to 65-percent carbohydrates, 25- to 35-percent fat, and 10- to 15-percent protein

  • 10 to 14 food units per lunch with from 100 to 300 kilocalories apiece, including entrées, drinks, fruits, energy bars, breads, and snacks

Gaskill, S.; Palmer, C.; Gaskill, H.; Hamilton, M. (all from the University of Montana); Domitrovich, J. (MTDC). 2008.

Conducted under terms of a memorandum of understanding between the MTDC and the University of Montana Human Performance Laboratory.

Stress and Coping Among Incident Management Team Members

During the summer of 2008, the University of Montana Human Performance Laboratory and MTDC examined stress and coping among incident management team members. During this study, 129 team members responded to a questionnaire designed to better understand their perceptions of stress and how they coped with the stress. Respondents included men and women in a broad spectrum of incident management positions with a wide range of experience fighting fire and serving on incident management teams.

Questionnaires were administered at the incident command post during the respondents’ fire assignments. Team members were asked about:

  • Their fire background
  • Their level of perceived stress
  • Their evaluation of how well they coped with stress
  • Their perceptions of their workload
  • Their view on organizational constraints to getting their jobs done
  • Their interpersonal relations with other incident management team members

While team members do report stress related to their assignments, they feel well equipped to deal with the stress. For most respondents, the relationships they have with other team members are a source of support that contributes not only to their ability to cope with stress, but also to effectively achieve their goals.

A more detailed study is needed to identify the specific steps incident management team members use to cope with stress on their assignments. Because team members generally report having good coping strategies, looking at the commonsense things they do can help MTDC document the work practices that succeed.

Other members of the wildland firefighting community feel that they could benefit from an examination of stress and coping behavior on their jobs. The Northern Rockies dispatchers have asked MTDC to include them in future studies of stress and coping.

Miller, T.; Palmer, C. (both of the University of Montana); Domitrovich, J. (MTDC). 2008.

Conducted under terms of a memorandum of understanding between MTDC and the University of Montana Human Performance Laboratory.

Effect of Meals on Muscle Glycogen

Wildland fire suppression offers a unique opportunity to study physiological stress during arduous job tasks (hiking steep terrain, digging, sawing, and moving water) in extreme environmental conditions while eating nothing but packaged meals. The energy demands of wildland firefighters during fire suppression have been well documented. However, previous studies have not determined the effect of laborious wildland fire suppression on muscle glycogen.

Six interagency hotshot firefighters participated in the study on two consecutive days. The firefighters were spiked out (supporting themselves at an isolated location) and eating nothing but packaged meals known in the military as meals ready to eat or MREs. Muscle biopsies were obtained from each firefighter's thigh (vastus lateralis) before and after the work shift. Activity was measured using activity monitors on the firefighter's chest and on a boot. Firefighters consumed food as they desired and recorded their food consumption.

Body weight decreased on day 1 (average weight decreased from 89.6 to 89.0 kilograms, p < 0.05), but increased slightly on day 2. The measure of statistical significance, p. < 0.05, means that the results would be expected to occur by chance fewer than 5 times in 100. Muscle glycogen decreased on day 1 (from 115 to 82 micromoles per kilogram wet weight, p < 0.05), but decreased just slightly on day 2 (from 83 to 82 micromoles per kilogram wet weight, p < 0.05).

Muscle glycogen was higher before the shift on day 1 than on day 2 (115 compared to 83 micromoles per kilogram wet weight, p < 0.05). Activity patterns were similar on both days. Total energy and carbohydrate intake was greater on day 1 than on day 2.

These data suggest that the availability and palatability of provisions may compromise muscle performance during multiple work shifts.

Tucker, T.; Cuddy, J.; Slivka, D.; Hailes, W.; Ruby, B. Missoula, MT: University of Montana, Montana Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism. 2008.

Supported by Air Force Research Laboratories, Contract No. FA8650-06-1-679.

Photo of three firefighters taking a break while out in the field.

University of Montana Creates New Research Center

The University of Montana has created a new research center for the study of work physiology and exercise metabolism. Funded by the U.S. Air Force Research Laboratories and directed by Dr. Brent Ruby, the center explores ways to improve performance during extended operations. The center includes a new laboratory at the University of Montana with facilities for studying physiology in environmental extremes (heat, cold, and humidity) and for conducting exercise biochemistry. A mobile laboratory is used for field research. Dr. Ruby's work with wildland firefighters led to creation of the center. The enlarged laboratory at the University of Montana and the mobile laboratory will expand research capabilities for work with firefighters.

Photo of a pickup truck towing a mobile trailer that is used as a laboratory for the University of Montana's Center for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism.
Figure 3—The mobile laboratory for the University of Montana's Center
for Work Physiology and Exercise Metabolism.