The effect of a full day of simulated flight on human performance in aerial firefighters


Each year, approximately 8600 wildfires threaten public safety and infrastructure, and cause a decreased air quality in many regions of Canada (BC Fire Report, 2009). To minimize direct and indirect costs of wildfires, aerial firefighters must be able to perform at a high level for extended periods of time. This study quantified the impact of a typical flight schedule on neuromuscular and cognitive function in 10 aerial firefighters. Over one day (9 hours of flight time), force steadiness measurements (5, 10, 25 and 50% of maximal voluntary contraction) and cognitive function (versions A and B of trail-making; Sanchez-Cubillo et al., 2009) were recorded at 3 time points (pre-flight, mid-day, post-flight). Throughout simulated flight, simple (serial-3) and complex (serial-7) variations of the serial counting tasks were performed during both simple (straight path) and complex (angled path) flight patterns. A flight simulator instructor scored the pilot's performance based on adherence to prescribed flight parameters (e.g. altitude). Repeated measures ANOVA revealed main effects of time (p<0.001) and complexity (p<0.001) for the serial counting task. There was a main effect of time in the trail making task (p=0.041). Our data also demonstrated force steadiness main effects for time (p=0.019) and condition (% of MVC; p<0.001). Overall, these preliminary results suggest prolonged exposure to a repetitive task can affect the performance of an aerial firefighter in as little as one day.

Acknowledgments: Supported by NSERC, CARIC, and Mitacs