Hotshots Wear Biofeedback Devices
During the 2019 Fire Season
By Paul Keller
If you’re a wildland firefighter, you already know that you might not be receiving your “normal” amount of sleep during fire assignments.
But are you aware just how harmful and damaging sleep deprivation can be to you and your fellow crewmembers? These destructive effects can include: poor fatigue management, increased health risks, and decreased work performance.
Our minds and bodies recover while we’re sleeping. Therefore, the more quality sleep you get, the better your recovery for the next day, especially for your central nervous system and brain recovery. Recent “sleep deprivation” studies conducted on the broader population have revealed that our sleep amounts have direct links to several brain functions which include: concentration, productivity, and cognition.
Positive Steps for Wildland Firefighters
With all this in mind, the Region 5 Interagency Hotshot Crew Steering Committee, with support from the Region 5 Human Performance Subcommittee, decided to take some positive steps for influencing individual behavior related to improved sleep management.
Committee members recognized that improved recovery from appropriate levels of sleep helps to ensure better decision making and promotes positive health outcomes while reducing injuries and improving performance.
Ben Strahan, Captain on the Eldorado Hotshots, and a member of the Human Performance Subcommittee, and Kyle Betty, Superintendent of the Tallac Hotshots, took the lead in this grassroots endeavor. “Throughout the 2019 fire season, some members of the Eldorado Hotshots, Tallac Hotshots, and Bear Divide Hotshots wore ‘biofeedback tools’ to enhance situational awareness and positively influence individual behaviors around fatigue,” Strahan explains in a December 2019 briefing paper on this project.
This initial important grassroots undertaking delivered significant findings to be shared with the broader wildland fire community.
“We believe there is an incredible opportunity here to provide these lessons learned to the larger fire community—individuals using biofeedback devices as a real-time tactic to positively influence personal behaviors related to fatigue management,” says Kelly Kane, Risk Management Specialist with the U.S. Forest Service’s Washington Office.
The real-time biofeedback devices that five members from each hotshot crew wore—for a total of 15—were the commercial product “WHOOP” wrist straps that analyze your “strain” score and other data to inform how much sleep you need each evening. They also measure the quality of your sleep and recommend how hard to push yourself based on that sleep.
Habit Altering Data
“Information gathered to date found that, on average, participants were getting less than 6½ hours of sleep per night and less than 6 hours of sleep for extended periods of time while on fire assignments,” Captain Strahan informs. He explains that current peer-reviewed research has revealed that getting less than 7 hours of sleep for long periods of time has a significant increase in harmful exposure.
“It is also worth mentioning that while on two-week fire assignments it was common to see average sleep dip below 6 hours a night,” he says, “with leadership being affected the most, the Superintendents and Captains.”
Strahan continues, “We know that anything under 7 hours is where we start to see real issues regarding poor health and increased risk.”
The table below, one of the outputs from this 2019 study, shows the various types of biofeedback data that were collected in the following categories: “Day Strain,” “Recovery,” “Sleep Performance,” “Sleep Consistency,” “Hours of Sleep,” “Sleep Efficiency,” “Resting Heart Rate,” “Heart Rate Variability,” and “Workouts.”
Strahan said that data from the biofeedback devices indicated that “we are straining at a much higher rate than our bodies can recover from. The implications of this over the long term can potentially lead to many health and longevity issues and effect decision making by impairing cognitive abilities.”
In summary, Strahan said feedback from the IHC participants support the use of these biofeedback devices. “The hotshot crew members noted that having real-time awareness of work impacts on sleep and recovery allowed them to make immediate adjustments to maximize their quality and quantity of sleep,” he points out.
“Also of significance,” Strahan informs, “these individuals noted that biofeedback had a positive influence in some instances on the crew as a whole. For instance, we had Superintendents wear the devices and have access to their crew’s data in real-time. They were then able to adjust sleeping areas, based on the data provided from the devices. There was a noticeable increase in quality of sleep when using sleep trailers. We were able to see that when using these trailers, most individuals were getting an extra 30 minutes of sleep. That could be the difference of being under or over 7 hours of sleep.”
An Eye-Opening Experience
“This has been an eye-opening experience for all of us,” reports Brian Anderson, Superintendent of the Bear Divide Interagency Hotshot Crew. “First, this study has gotten all of us to pay close attention to how much time we need to dedicate to sleep. Second, we are getting a firsthand look at how little our bodies actually recover when we don’t get enough—or get poor quality—sleep.”
Going forward, Superintendent Anderson explains he will now ensure that his crew members are sleeping in beds “as often as we can be.” And if they can’t sleep in beds, “I will make it a priority to put us in the best possible positions to get the best possible sleep.”
In addition, he assures that he will now “be finding more ways to give the crew ‘downtime.’ And I’ll be looking for more opportunities to take 3 days off instead of 2. There will be more business practice changes when the 2020 Bear Divide Hotshots come on.”
“I believe these devices have had an impact on the way I will now do business,” echoes Kyle Betty, Superintendent of the Tallac Interagency Hotshot Crew. He explains he can now better evaluate personnel and make good decisions for the operational shift based on how much sleep and recovery individuals have had—and the level to which they will be able to perform.
“That doesn’t mean they’ll be sitting in the truck, but it might mean that, if it’s feasible, they aren’t dragging a torch for the entire 6-hour burn,” Superintendent Betty informs.
He views this study as an opportunity to use a tool to gain an advantage for his crew.
“Our folks with the most rest and recovery may be the ones for that day to tackle a tougher mission. It takes 2 minutes to look at the app in the morning and have a good idea of how people are feeling. It is not changing my tactics or the way I view assignments, but it is giving me good intel on how I might be able to use folks in different roles if the opportunities present themselves.”
Eldorado Hotshot Captain Strahan also cites another benefit, what he calls “the trickle-down effect.”
“One crew member wearing the WHOOP device could be on a saw team, who now receives a little more awareness on his/her sleeping habits,” Strahan explains. “Next, their adjustments start to rub-off on their saw partner and this starts to spread throughout the crew.”
He continues, “just like a bad habit is infectious, so are positive changes in habits. It’s something that is hard to quantify. But you could see people doing just a little better at putting the phone down before bed, to reduce blue light exposure, or eating less before bedtime. Therefore, heart rate decreased correctly during sleep, a positive sign of recovery.
“Just like someone asking you about what kind of boots you have on, people would ask: ‘What’s that on your wrist?’ This creates curiosity in other individuals and helps them question and pay attention to their own sleep habits.”
Personal Behavior Modifications
“For myself, personally,” points out Tallac Hotshot Crew Superintendent Betty, “I have noticed it [the biofeedback study] starting to change my habits on how I do things and how I can take a little bit better care of myself. I notice I am trying different things to try and get as much sleep as possible. I’ve even adapted my sleep habits in the winter to try and maximize my physical training regimen.”
Bear Divide Hotshot Crew Superintendent Anderson also reflects on “what the results of the Whoop mean for me personally.”
“I happened to notice something significant about my recovery through this process. It took me weeks to get my recovery percentages into the Green Zone [‘All systems go–your body is primed for peak performance’] after fire season ‘officially’ ended. Weeks!
“The last couple of months of the 2019 season when we were wearing the WHOOPs bands I noticed I only got between 4-5 hours of sleep a night. Based on those couple results, I am now making attempts at changing some lifestyle habits to get the best possible numbers during the fire season—and during the off-season, too.”
Superintendent Anderson continues, “we know that everything about our performance is anchored in sleep, closely followed by diet and exercise. Truth be told, we get plenty of exercise on the fire line, but the food available to us is usually terrible and sleep/sleeping areas are usually sub-par at best. For me, my ability to make sound, timely, and effective decisions—because lives depend on it—is directly affected by the quality and duration of my sleep.”
The Region 5 Interagency Hotshot Crew Steering Committee and the Region 5 Human Performance Subcommittee now support the use of biofeedback devices on a broad scale during the 2020 fire season as a continued tactic to positively influence individual behaviors related to fatigue management.
“Key Points” for this continued study in 2020 outlined in the briefing paper:
- Empower as many employees as possible during the 2020 fire season with biofeedback devices.
- Reduce injuries, optimize health and performance.
- Create a healthier, happier, and more resilient workforce.
“As we continue to capture the data into the 2020 season, we will be able to see how the individuals have used the information given to them through this biofeedback device and adjusted their sleeping habits,” Captain Strahan says. “Received feedback so far from users has been very positive. The insights and education this information has provided has been eye-opening.”
In Conclusion – the Numbers Don’t Lie
“If we don’t change the way we do business around these things, shame on us,” says Superintendent Anderson.
“We always blame people for accidents/injuries/fatalities. We always blame decision-makers for accidents/injuries/fatalities. Who do you know who goes to work to die or get hurt every day? Who do you know who wants to make a decision that gets someone hurt or killed every day?
“I would look at our lifestyles, and what we can do to set us up for a higher likelihood of success. The [biofeedback study] numbers don’t lie.”
[For more information on the biofeedback study, contact Ben Strahan: 530-401-1251; firstname.lastname@example.org.]