Thanks to global warming, wildland firefighters, elite crews called into battle forest fires, will have no shortage of work in years to come. Blazes will only become more common, putting added strain on the men and women who regularly pull 16-hour shifts while performing a task that requires an immense amount of physical and mental fortitude.
As such, both government agencies and independent scientists are trying to gain a better understanding of firefighter fatigue, and have studied how the firefighters work and rest. Most research, however, has relied on self-reports from firefighters, yielding inconsistent data.
Noting the lack of objective sleep stats, Australian scientists recently conducted a study, in which they outfitted 40 Australian firefighters (31 men, 9 women) with activity-monitoring bracelets. The researchers found that, within a 24-hour period of active duty, the firefighters worked an average of 11.36 consecutive hours and slept for roughly six hours and 54 minutes less than on days they didn’t fight fires.
The risk of running firefighters ragged isn’t lost on U.S. agencies that oversee and regulate hotshot crews. The U.S. Forest Service (USFS) first created recommendations for wildland firefighter work/rest cycles in 1989, and they’re still in place today. Based on two fatigue studies, the recommendations put forth a “2:1” rule that applies to shifts up to 24 hours and says firefighters should get one hour of rest or sleep for every two hours of active duty.
“Most rested individuals can tolerate up to a 24-hour work shift without substantial loss of cognitive or physical performance," per the USFS website, "so long as adequate recovery is given between shifts.”
In practice, the rule typically translates to 16 hours on, 8 hours off. Until 2000, crewmembers typically worked a 16-8 schedule for 21-day stretches, with two-day breaks in between deployment. That figure dropped to 14 days, with one-day breaks, in light of a safety report emphasizing the toll of the trade.
To learn more about the demands of wildland firefighters, we reached out to Jason Ramos, a 25-year veteran firefighter and author of SmokeJumper, a memoir released this summer. (Ramos asked us to note that his experience and perspective don’t reflect that of any government agency.)
Can you give us an overview of your typical schedule during wildfire season?
From what I know, the Australian and U.S. schedules are way different. On the federal side, we can work 16-hour days for 21 days with two days off; that’s kind of the standard. After 16 hours, [they] want them off and “bedded down” for eight hours. But, shifts can exceed that, if life and property are in jeopardy, we don’t stop. If someone's in there, I'm going to push it as much as possible.
How strict is the standard? Is it applied everywhere?
No, the rules are dynamic. I’ve worked for everyone from the county to federal agencies, and the work/rest guidelines are all different. They depend on the region and the emergency at hand, too. In California, when I started, we could work around the clock until a fire was contained.
Some of these guys get as much overtime as they can because they work six-month seasons, and need to pay bills and take care of families and kids. Some of the hotshot crews can pull over a thousand hours of overtime in less than six months. That’s crazy; that’s two jobs. So they go 14 on, two off, 14, two for the whole summer. And if you’re on that type of fire crew, you just can’t take another day off, so there is some strain there.
If it’s a given that crewmembers are going to maximize overtime, is the the six-month schedule a recipe for disaster?
No. I’ve never been in a situation where people seemed to be a total mess.
Are there other exceptions?
Well, let’s say we’re at base and working 21 days but nothing’s on fire, in some places, you’d only get one day off rather than two because the work isn’t “arduous”; you didn’t do an “arduous 21." That was back in the '90s. We don't do 21s anymore. But if you’re on a fireline for 14 days, in a hotshot crew, you’re supposed to get two off. What you see on the news; those are all 14-day assignments.
Is sleep explicitly discussed in determining work/rest cycles?
Yeah, most of the reason is because [they] want them to get sleep. But it’s not that crewmembers are over-extended after 14 or 21 days. It’s the profession, and if you don’t like it — hey there are other jobs out there.
How did the firefighters react after rules were implemented? When did they start being enforced?
There was never any griping. I can’t remember exactly, but I think the early 2000s. I’m not saying they didn’t exist, but just that we didn’t practice them.
Before the rules were enforced, did you personally struggle with the draining schedule?
Yeah, you fell asleep standing up. You’re tired. I’ve done that — multiple times, back in my volunteer days. There are houses burning, and then you get these lulls between “gating” [ed note: creating barriers] and being back on patrol, and it just happens. You doze off for a second and then you get tired. I remember going in for the Rodney King Riots. Waking up, the tones went off, and I put on my wildland boots first, and then tried to put on my turnout boots over them. I didn’t realize I couldn’t because I was so tired. You’re going for days and days and you just get silly.
How strictly are they enforced now?
There are a lot of safety checks in place with the 2:1. Again, it's so dynamic and depends on what kind of assignment you're on and your position. On larger fires, when you [as a supervisor] get a new crew, you say, “What day are you guys on?” and [a crew leader] might say, “We’re on 10, and my crew is sick. They’ve got colds. They’ve been up for so long, I need to bed [them] down.” Then you’d say, “Okay, well then if possible I’m going to get you back.” Then the crew’s unavailable and they get eight hours. It’s very monitored, so that even when there’s a fire going, you have to ask “What day are you on?” Unless people are getting killed, and then the schedule is up to the team and whoever they’re reporting to. It’s been pretty great in my experience.
This story has been updated.