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Being fatigued can be deadly for firefighters. How one U of I professor is trying to help

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Posted at 5:04 PM, Jul 06, 2021
and last updated 2021-07-06 20:11:50-04

MAGIC VALLEY — Fatigue while working can cause performance levels to decrease, but having to fight fires while sleep-deprived can be deadly.

University of Idaho professor Randy Brooks witnessed this after three of his son's teammates were killed after fighting a fire with only a couple of hours of sleep the night before.

“I have two boys. Both of them are wildland firefighters. One of them is actually a smokejumper, and August 9, 2015, he was on a fire where three of his best friends that were on his team were killed," Brooks said.

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After the incident, Brook's son reached out to him to see if he could help.

“Part of what happened after that when he came back he said dad I know you’re a forester you research forestry related things is there anything you can do for firefighters, wildland firefighters to make our job safer," Brooks said.

Soon after, he decided to research how being fatigued affects these wildland firefighter's performance while on the job. With the help of some volunteers, Brooks gave tracking devices to wildland firefighters that tracked when they fall asleep and when they wake up.

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“What I found was they get significantly less sleep while on a fire assignment then they do while not on a fire assignment," Brooks said.

His research found the lack of sleep mimics blood alcohol concentration, which slows their reaction time. This also makes firefighters more prone to injuries while on the job.

“Let’s say it’s been slowed by 40 or 50%. You got a falling tree or a rock rolling down the hill, if your reaction time is slowed by 40 or 50% that increases your odds of getting injured," Brooks said.

Since starting his research in 2016, Brooks has been working with different agencies like U.S. Forestry service and the Bureau of Land Management to come up with different solutions.

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He has also done podcasts and workshops to spread awareness. During these talks, he informs wildland firefighters of the importance of going to bed on time and staying hydrated.

“Reduce caffeine. A lot of people sit up at night watching their phones. The screen technology makes the brain come awake. So try to avoid screen technology," Brooks said.

Brooks said his goal behind this research is to be able to at least save one life.

“This is not just an academic exercise as a professor or me trying to publish a paper. And I have this quote I love to use, we can replace homes we can replace structures and trees, but we can’t replace lives," he said.