American Firefighters Lose Health and Reaction-Time, Studies Show
BOISE, ID – August 3, 2018
This summer was characterized by the severe seasonal wildfires all over the Pacific Northwest, especially, in such states as Idaho, Montana, Oregon and California. Yet, the latest studies show many American firefighters suffer from mental problems, react slower and, in general, lose health, while on duty.
About 19,000 firefighters are currently in the field fighting nearly 40 large wildfires. Fourteen firefighters have died this year as wildfires have scorched about 3,500 square miles (9,000 square kilometers) and destroyed about 3,000 homes. A study last year found firefighters lost muscle mass but gained fat based on body-composition testing before and after the season.
Firefighters in the field can get as little as six hours of sleep or less each night. The devices found that not only did reaction times falter as firefighters remained longer on a fire before getting a mandatory break, Brooks said, but firefighters also tended to take longer to recover as the season progressed. Sometimes, fatigue levels reached a level that suggested reaction times slowed down so much it took firefighters twice as long to react.
A fair number of wildland firefighters also die of heart attacks during the season. Randy Brooks, the author of the research, said he wanted to know if there's something about the demanding seasonal job that puts wildland firefighters at greater risk of heart attacks.
Brooks wonders about the smoke firefighters inhale while doing physically demanding work. Many cities in the Pacific Northwest this year issued health alerts due to smoky air. Ultimately, firefighters themselves might be part of the problem when it comes to calculating risks while protecting natural resources and property.
"There's a little bit of a hero culture," said John Freemuth, a Boise State University environmental policy professor and public lands expert. "There is a bonding with everybody. It can create a culture of where you kind of collectively ignore things you shouldn't ignore."