Cara Sayer-Bourne June 16, 2012
Kirsten Tasker, from the Stromlo Depot, performs a task indoors yesterday while being monitored by researchers. Photo: Graham Tidy
For 12 hours a day, a group of firefighters near Canberra has been in full uniform, lugging hoses back and forth, raking up debris and putting out imaginary fires, all on less than four hours' sleep a night.
It's day three of their simulated bushfire campaign and they're showing signs of strain. Their muscles are fatigued, their appetite is out of whack and they're struggling more and more in cognitive tests.
All this is an effort to better prepare the firefighters of the ACT Parks and Conservation Service - and ultimately crews around Australia - for the often sustained campaigns of bushfire season.
The mission of the research project from the Bushfire Cooperative Research Centre is to find out what impact sleep deprivation has during multi-day bushfire deployments.
Firefighters Kirsten Tasker and Anthony Fordham were among those feeling the effects three days into their four-day program at Birrigai, near Tidbinbilla.
''You find you're fatigued a lot faster and because I'm a lot littler than them [the other participants] I'm starting to struggle with the heavier tasks,'' Ms Tasker said.
''At day three we are starting to struggle now.''
It's the third group to take part in the program and the five-person team lives with researchers at Birrigai, where they conduct strenuous firefighting tasks at the simulation site for four days.
The volunteers also undergo a number of health checks and cognitive tests, including simulation driving to and from fire sites.
The two other groups involved completed the simulation under the variables of heat and smoke.
Territory and Municipal Services Fire Management Unit manager Neil Cooper said: ''The simulation is designed to mimic a situation in which firefighters are called to a fire during early afternoon, work at the fire ground until a relief crew arrives, sleep, work a 12-hour shift, sleep and then complete a second 12-hour shift.''
Deakin University post-doctoral researcher Katrina Onus hopes the collaboration with Bushfire CRC and Central Queensland University will become a nationwide program.
''The aim is to be able to advise agencies about what to expect during campaign bushfires about their firefighters' work performance, health and cognition,'' she said.