Hot Cognition

  2:45 A.M. The 14th call of the shift. Fire rages in a multi-story structure. Arriving on the scene, firefighters note several lighted windows of occupied rooms. Moments later, the power is cut. Remembering the location of these rooms – and...


  2:45 A.M. The 14th call of the shift. Fire rages in a multi-story structure. Arriving on the scene, firefighters note several lighted windows of occupied rooms. Moments later, the power is cut. Remembering the location of these rooms – and their potential occupants – may be the...


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2:45 A.M. The 14th call of the shift. Fire rages in a multi-story structure. Arriving on the scene, firefighters note several lighted windows of occupied rooms. Moments later, the power is cut. Remembering the location of these rooms – and their potential occupants – may be the difference between life and death. To what extent is the ability to perform this task compromised by the fact that these firefighters have been running calls all day long? What is the relationship between excessive call volume and cognitive fatigue?

While considerable research has highlighted the dangers of physical fatigue, the idea that cognitive abilities like attention and memory may become impaired by a high work load is relatively unexplored. It is well established that fatigue has negative consequences on the immune system, emotional resilience and social interactions, and it stands to reason that the speed and accuracy of decision making is also at risk when job demands become excessive.

Because so many fire departments are facing budget cuts, and because this frequently requires cutting jobs and increasing the workload on the remaining firefighters, it is imperative to explore the consequences this will have on mental and physical readiness. Of particular interest is the extent to which high call volumes may compromise cognitive functioning in real-world tasks, like the ability to remember the occupied rooms in the opening vignette.

Case Study: Mesa, AZ

In 2005, the Mesa, AZ, Fire Department (MFD) had 23 pieces of apparatus serving a population of 443,000 in a 132-square-mile jurisdiction. With 61,000 calls that year, the average number of calls per apparatus was 2,652 – more than twice that of many cities comparably sized in terms of both population and jurisdiction (e.g., Atlanta, GA; Fresno, CA; Tulsa, OK; and Kansas City, MO). Moreover, in 2005, 45% of Mesa’s units responded to more than 3,000 calls. According to TriData, a consulting firm that has conducted more than 150 studies of fire departments, annual responses of 3,000 to 3,200 not only create response time and availability issues, but also fatigue problems with crew members. In other words, there is a direct correlation between the number of responses and fatigue.

Concerned over the potential toll of excessively high call volumes, MFD’s Critical Incident Stress Management (CISM) Team authored a report highlighting the importance of adequate sleep for the health and well-being of the city’s firefighters. The literature review revealed a relative dearth of research directly related to the cognitive impact of high call volume on firefighters’ on-the-job performance and several critical questions remained unanswered:

• To what extent do firefighters subjected to stresses of 10 or more calls in a 24-hour shift also show cognitive impairment?

• Do they make more errors in simple decision tasks?

• Does memory suffer?

• Does it take them longer to make decisions that need to be made in a split second?

To address these questions, CISM team members Greg Adams, Michele Adamczyk and Steve Ward initiated a collaboration with Dr. Vaughn Becker, a cognitive psychologist at Arizona State University Polytechnic, and Dr. K.C. Blackwell, a quantitative psychologist at Arizona StateUniversity. Using state-of-the-art memory and reaction-time tasks (tasks that are often used to examine cognitive impairment that results from intoxication or dementia), the researchers worked with designers at the Internet development consortium Redfish Group to develop a series of web-based computerized assessments designed to evaluate the extent to which critical facets of job-relevant cognitive functioning are impacted by call volume.

The selection and development of the assessments was based on the U.S. Department of Labor’s Dictionary of Occupational Titles, which provides comprehensive details of the specific abilities required for performing the job of a municipal firefighter. This information, in conjunction with consultation with local firefighters serving as subject-matter experts, formed the basis for a series of computer games designed to tap cognitive abilities directly relevant to tasks performed in the line of duty.

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