Study shows stress of fighting bushfires and importance of proper rest

Media release
18 February 2020

A first-of-its-kind Deakin University study has shown the high-level of physiological stress fighting bushfires places on the human body.

The study's lead author Dr Luana Main, from Deakin's Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN), said her data illustrated the importance of firefighters being monitored to ensure adequate rest between shifts, so their bodies can properly recover.

"It's a no-brainer that firefighting is a physically stressful task, but it's also vital we better understand exactly how the body is affected so firefighters can be appropriately looked after," Dr Main said.

"Ours is the first trial to investigate the acute inflammatory response of firefighters while on the job battling a bushfire. Now we know what the impact of this exposure is, we need to be doing more to monitor them, especially given they are doing so much to protect us from harm.

"Critically, it also shows the need for more hands on deck. We can't expect the same people to go out day in day out. We need to ensure we have the numbers of personnel available so there's opportunity for adequate rest.

"However, in small brigades or sparsely populated regions other strategies might be needed. One possible way to do this might be managing their exposure to stressors in a similar way to how we monitor athletes."

The IPAN study - recently published in the Journal of Occupational and Environmental Medicine - examined data collected during the 'Black Saturday' bushfires.

On the weekend following the fires' initial outbreak, 38 male volunteer firefighters provided blood samples before and after a 12-hour firefighting shift.

Results showed the average firefighter had elevated levels of cytokines following his shift, the body's messenger molecules responsible for initiating inflammation and the body's sickness response.

"Cytokines are increased by smoke inhalation, heat stress and physical exertion. While short term increases in these markers may facilitate recovery, excessive levels may compromise recovery and future performance capacity," Dr Main said.

The data also showed that even though ambient temperatures were considered mild or warm on the day the samples were taken, more than half of the firefighters recorded core temperatures at 38 degrees.

Dr Main said the results were consistent with inflammatory changes found in over-trained athletes.

"This research confirms that fighting bushfires is highly stressful, and puts the body under considerable strain," Dr Main said.

"The body may adapt to these pressures, but we know that if these markers are elevated for sustained periods it may predispose individuals to negative health outcomes. So if firefighters don’t have adequate rest between shifts this may have a longer lasting impact.

"Repeated exposure, which may come over the course of an emergency services career, has links to depression, anxiety, cardiovascular disease and some cancers. All of these have been reported in firefighters at a greater incidence compared with non-emergency workers.

"That means fire authorities need ways to better monitor these personnel - how much sleep they're getting, their recovery time, and if they are adequately hydrated.

"Subjective markers can also be used like self-reported wellbeing, checking in with firefighters at the end of a shift to get a perspective on how they are recovering.

"With many firefighters still battling blazes across the country, we hope this research will help instigate more strategies to reduce the risk of illness in our firefighting personnel, preserving their long-term health and safety."

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Media release Faculty of Health, School of Exercise and Nutrition Sciences Institute for Physical Activity and Nutrition (IPAN)

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