University of Cumbria research highlights firefighters lack of hydration

You may think that firefighters wouldn’t normally suffer from a lack of water. But research completed by the University of Cumbria, in collaboration with Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service, has highlighted how vital proper hydration can be to a firefighter’s performance.

The research was undertaken by the University of Cumbria’s Sports Science Support Group with assistance from firefighters at Kendal and Penrith.

Hydration studies in sport have established the crucial role hydration plays in physical as well as cognitive performance, with a reduction of only 2% of body mass affecting physiological and metabolic functions.

However, surprisingly little information exists with regards to firefighters and the impact it might have on their performance during house fires. Entering a flaming house could be a matter of life or death, so maximum physical and mental abilities are crucial, for both the casualty and the firefighter’s sake.

Final-year sport and exercise science student Tom Rothwell collected a range of data from the fire crews before and after training sessions. Key findings indicated that approximately half of the firefighters were not sufficiently hydrated to work at peak performance, especially during breathing apparatus training, which is more physically demanding.

For example, breathing apparatus training resulted in 1.2% body mass loss in only 21 minutes. As a comparison, rugby players lose 1.3% – 1.5% of their body mass through sweating in a typical rugby match. This loss becomes even more crucial if the firefighters have to attend another call out following the first one.

Tom Wright, Service Fitness Adviser and Janet Helm, Occupational Health Sister from the Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service were both involved in the research project.

Tom says:

“The work carried out with the university was of much interest; as a firefighter myself, I know the demands of the job. As Cumbria is predominantly an on-call service I feel it is even more important to educate personnel on the importance of maintaining sufficient hydration levels. One minute someone could be on a building site, and the next they are on the back of a pump riding to an incident.

Crew managers therefore cannot regulate how well hydrated their crew is. Now that we are more aware of the effects of dehydration on the human body, we have started to carry water in the crew cab, to encourage personnel to consume fluid, even on route to a job.

The research project was overseen by Theo Bampouras, Human Performance Laboratory Director at the University of Cumbria. He comments:

“This collaboration with Cumbria Fire and Rescue Service was excellent, providing information that can influence future practice to improve performance as well as firefighters’ safety.

“Naturally, the experience for students to work on such projects is invaluable for their professional development and employability and we were very happy to be able to offer this opportunity.”

Tom Rothwell has presented the results of the project to the recent British Association of Sport and Exercise Sciences student conference held in Liverpool.