When I was young, I slept like the dead. Nothing bothered me or kept me awake, not barking dogs or loud music or snoring or traffic. One time when I was a kid, our neighbors’ garage caught fire in the middle of the night, and there was a full fire department response. I slept right through it.
This gift of sleep stayed with me when I first became a firefighter. Sleeping in the dorm was no problem – I slept great and sometimes woke up in the morning not entirely sure if we had gone out in the middle of the night. I easily adjusted to all-nighters on the job with only a little more sleep the next day.
Then I became an engineer, and everything changed.
Once I was responsible for driving the truck and navigating to our destination, I could no longer just roll out of bed and stumble down to the rig, using the time en route to fully wake up. I had to be awake and sharp the moment the alarm went off.
I quickly adapted to this new reality. I started becoming so easily awakened that just the dispatcher keying the mic woke me up, before our tone even came in.
This high level of alertness only increased once I became an officer. Then I felt responsible for everything, my mind racing from the moment I sat up in bed.
Firefighters are at risk for sleep disorders
Many firefighters experience sleep disruptions or disorders which are directly linked to their work. A 2014 study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found that 37 percent of more than 7,000 firefighters studied screened positive for at least one significant sleep disorder.
Scientists have long been puzzled about the exact role sleep plays in our lives. We spend nearly one-third of our lives doing it, and it is well known that problems with sleep can be linked to some serious outcomes: decreased cognition, diminished physical coordination, significant mood changes and even mental illness.
But only recently have researchers concluded that sleep affects every bodily system, including immune functions, cardiovascular health and basic metabolism. One course of research currently being conducted seeks to understand how sleep disruptions may be linked to cancer.
The fact that sleep is more important for our health than anyone might have previously thought is not necessarily good news for firefighters. By definition, firefighters and paramedics experience sleep disruptions that range from irritating to disabling. The job demands 24/7 readiness and response capability, and a good night’s sleep will often suffer as a result.
Mitigating the risks of sleep interruptions
Understanding how important sleep is to overall health, what can individuals and organizations do to mitigate the negative effects of sleep disruption?
First, fire departments need to recognize that sleep is an essential aspect of good health among their members, and support healthy sleep as much as they can, while still fulfilling the mission of constant readiness. Departments should provide sleeping quarters that are conducive to real rest:
- Comfortable and supportive mattresses.
- Well ventilated sleeping spaces.
- The ability to make sleeping rooms truly dark.
- When possible: privacy and quiet.
Many fire departments now recognize that turnout gear retains many toxins that can off-gas even after washing and have adopted policies that disallow turnout gear in sleep spaces.
Emergency services agencies should further educate their members about the risks of chronic sleep disruption and provide guidance on how individuals can mitigate this potential harm.
One thing individuals can do to enhance sleep is to moderate their use of stimulants such as caffeine. Avoiding coffee at night is obvious, but other products also contain significant amounts of caffeine:
- Sports drinks.
- Some medications.
Caffeine has a half-life of several hours, so coffee consumed in the afternoon can still negatively affect the ability to sleep that evening. It is important to recognize that products that advertise as being decaffeinated can still contain up top 30 percent of the original caffeine content.
Sugar can also disrupt the metabolic cycle associated with sleep and should be avoided before sleep.
Many studies show that screen time – whether on a phone, a personal device, a computer or even a television – can have significant negative effects on the ability to fall asleep. The type of light emitted from these devices stimulates parts of the brain that support wakefulness rather than sleep. If you want to sleep better, put your phone away well before going to bed.
When sleep is lost, that debt must be repaid. Short naps (about 20 minutes is ideal) can be restorative and should be allowed as possible. But firefighters also need to recognize that if they have just worked a 24 hour shift with no sleep, they will need to compensate for that loss the following day for full healthy function to be restored. This need to replenish the well of sleep becomes even more important as people age.
Perhaps the most important aspect of maintaining good sleep health over a lifetime in the emergency services is just the awareness of how important sleep is, and how much higher it should be prioritized in our lives. Sleep disruptions are normal in life (new baby, anyone?) and don’t necessarily lead to actual disorders or health problems.
But if sleep problems are not attended to, if people believe they are invincible and don’t need sleep like other people, and if efforts are not made to compensate for sleep losses over time, real consequences may result in both the short and long term. And those outcomes are never good.