Firefighters Work Like Elite Athletes

ByABC News
August 27, 2002, 11:39 AM

Sept. 3 -- If you thought Lance Armstrong was tough, consider this: Hotshot firefighters require nearly the same amount of energy as the Tour de France champion just to do their job.

Unlike in professional sports, where an athlete's calorie and water input and energy output are carefully recorded and charted in training logs, a wildland firefighter's progress is usually gauged by where fire lines remain at the end of the day.

But researchers at the University of Montana and Montana University have been using high-tech gadgets and sophisticated science in recent years to measure the physical strains on elite fire crews. The hope is by measuring how much energy these crews use to battle wildfires, their supervisors can support them better with adequate food, water supplies and rest schedules.

The results also interest researchers in the U.S. Department of Defense, which, along with the Forest Service, has provided funding for the studies.

"I think the attractiveness of the firefighter model is we're not faking anything," says Brent Ruby, an exercise physiologist at the University of Montana in Missoula. "That means you get a non-simulated combat field-like environment physical and psychological stress included."

An Elite Fleet

The Montana researchers selected the toughest of the tough hotshot firefighters as their test subjects.

There are now a total of 1,360 hotshot firefighters in 68 crews nationwide, according to the Interagency Fire Center. The crews are assigned to the most difficult part of wildfires and are trained to work in all phases of wildland firefighting, including building fire lines, setting backfires and mopping up.

To measure the energy output of these crews, Ruby and Steve Gaskill, also an exercise physiologists at the University of Montana , used a testing device known as doubly labeled water. This water solution is packed with tracers in the form of isotopes elements that are naturally heavier or lighter in mass.