FOCUS ON FIRE
IN THE FOREST
FUNCTION OF FIRE
A GRASP ON SMOKE
BEYOND THE BLAZES
By Chad Dundas
Each year the United States government spends billions to ensure its soldiers have the best education, the best training and the best equipment in the world. This summer, working alongside crews of wildland firefighters in the hot and smoky hills of Montana, two UM researchers pitched in to make sure the U.S. military also eats the best food.
With an initial grant from the Department of Defense, Professor Brent Ruby and Associate Professor Steven Gaskill, both researchers with the Department of Health and Human Performance, have spent part of their summers conducting studies and collecting data while working in the chaotic and sometimes dangerous environment of the fire lines. Their research helps the U.S. Forest Service monitor firefighter health and safety and devise new ways to keep fire crews fit and out of harm’s way amid hazardous conditions.
“We study pretty much anything that affects the firefighter,” Gaskill says. “Most of the research with wildland fires is done on fire behavior, the fuels, the terrain that they’re in, but what we do is work with the actual functioning of the firefighters.”
The two are part of a cooperative effort between the University and the Forest Service that dates back to the early 1960s. That’s when Brian Sharkey, now professor emeritus with the School of Education and one-time president of the American College of Sports Medicine, began working with the Missoula Technology Development Center on basic health and safety issues for firefighters, including work output studies and benchmark fitness standards. Then during their years in the field, Gaskill and Ruby have analyzed the fire crews from a number of different perspectives, most recently involving how different feeding strategies can affect productivity and safety on the fire lines.
The program has been a success. Now the government wants Ruby and Gaskill to help streamline and analyze the way combat soldiers eat, using the firefighter as a model.
“The military has always been interested in our research,” Ruby says, “because they see it as a way to test out their concepts and theories and products or feeding strategies in a hostile environment that has similar psychological and physiological strains associated with combat, for the most part. People die in combat, people die on the fire line. There is this underlying psychological strain associated with the job.”
Sometime in the near future, the armed forces’ Meal Ready to Eat or MRE — the prepackaged food in sealed plastic sacks and cardboard containers that has been the standard chow issued to combat soldiers since the early 1980s — could be replaced with slicker, quicker, healthier options, according to Ruby.
“The problem (with the MRE) is that you have to open it and prepare it. Often times, if you want to eat your chicken teriyaki with rice and make it desirable, you have to cook it,” says Ruby, the director of UM’s Human Performance Laboratory. “It can be a hassle for these guys, because they’re trying to eat on the go …. For a variety of reasons it’s not the most convenient option.”
When the military debuts its new food for soldiers, called First Strike Rations, there might not be a “Made in Montana” sticker on the wrapper, but it will certainly have been tested in Big Sky Country. In August, the Army sent two large loads of the stuff to Missoula and dispatched a small team of its own researchers to help Gaskill and Ruby distribute it to a few Forest Service firefighters. Consenting crews had their normal food supplies replaced with First Strike Rations in order to use the firefighters’ daily dietary needs to mimic the demands of combat soldiers.
Firefighters were outfitted with small personal monitors, which assessed their work output throughout the day. They also submitted urine and blood samples for before-and-after comparison and participated in some computerized cognitive tests during and following their shifts to test how they held up mentally after a hard day’s work with First Strike Rations for food.
“We’re basically evaluating a whole host of variables for the Army, and three of their researchers (came) out to coordinate the large-scale feeding study,” Ruby says. “We’re going to look at the differences between the MRE approach to feeding and the new First Strike Ration to see if it will affect a whole host of markers, from psychological stress to work output to hydration status and so on.”
Ruby says most fire crews are open to taking part in the tests, even if it does mean subjecting themselves to sometimes tedious tests at the end of a long workday.
“We really work hard to establish a very good level of communication with the fire management team so that they’re very clear why we’re there, why we’ve selected that particular fire, why we’re working with that crew,” Ruby says. “All the time these fire management teams bend over backwards to get us all settled.”
from that study will take awhile to analyze,
but the results will likely support what Ruby
and Gaskill already know: that the traditional
approach of splitting the workday in two parts
with a sit-down lunch break in the middle is
not the best way to feed high-endurance workers
like firefighters. It can lead to diminished
work capacity late in the day, and even though
the firefighters may not even realize it, it
may also cause them to become less focused
“We know that by altering their feeding strategies just a little bit we can increase their work output by as much as 20 percent,” says Gaskill.
Ruby, himself a triathlete and avid runner, likens this feeding strategy to the system that endurance athletes have been using for years in events like the Ironman triathlon, Eco-Challenge and the Tour de France. In those events athletes carry small and easily accessible packets of food that they eat throughout the day, whenever they have time. This approach is more likely to keep muscles well-fed and the mind sharp, and Ruby says it could translate to an extra two or three hours of good work for a firefighter.
“If you feed somebody like Lance Armstrong a sack lunch on a day in the Pyrenees, it’s not going to work,” Ruby says. “So the feeding strategy that ultra-endurance athletes have developed over the years is what we’d like to see put in place with the wildland firefighter.”
The military’s First Strike Rations adhere to a similar philosophy, using small, easy-to-open packets of food for the on-the-go realities soldiers face.
Field studies on the fire line can be both frustrating and exhilarating, the UM scientists say, because unlike normal lab work, they can’t control what goes on around them. Ruby and Gaskill often wait weeks to find out which fire they’ll be covering. Once the Forest Service gives them a location, they have to scramble their team of half a dozen graduate students and transport their equipment (and food) to the fire camp to set up the series of huge dome tents that serve as their temporary laboratory. They stay up late and get up early in order to conduct tests on fire crews as they come and go — the scientists themselves conforming to the grueling schedule of the firefighter.
“It feels like 98 percent of the data collection happens in the dark,” Ruby says. “We’re talking to the crews late at night when they come off the shift or we’re talking to them between 4:30 and 6 o’clock in the morning when the sun hasn’t come up yet.”
The researchers say their No. 1 priority is coming up with ways to keep fire crews safe, but both Ruby and Gaskill point out that they’re not in the business of trying to influence Forest Service policy.
“In general the wildfire community is pretty darned receptive of our data,” Ruby says, “but it’s a bureaucratic, slow process, trying to make any changes. We’ve struggled because our job is really not to be political activists for the firefighter and to try to make change happen, our job is to put the data out there and see if somebody in the wildfire community will run with it.”