Americans don’t get enough sleep. Although it’s commonly recommended that adults get 6–8 hours of sleep each night, there are a lot of chronically sleep-deprived people out there. The problem is much more serious than dozing at their desks: These people experience increased errors in tasks requiring alertness and quick decision making—tasks like driving safely. In the case of working firefighters, this translates into difficulty performing property- and life-saving tasks.
Firefighters: Just Like Everyone Else
When it comes to health, firefighters fit in with most adult Americans: Less than 10 percent of them have a healthy diet, exercise regularly and have optimal body weights. And a large percentage of them are chronically sleep-deprived, though they may not know it.
A recent study by the International Association of Fire Chiefs (IAFC) examined this pervasive problem as it relates to our industry. The study confirms that sleep deprivation among firefighters can have serious effects on their work and their health.
“This is a critical issue for firefighters,” stresses Vicki Lee, program manager for the Safety, Health & Survival Section of the IAFC. Chronic lack of sleep has been linked to health complaints including musculoskeletal problems, weight gain, increased risk of sleep apnea and even heart disease and some cancers.
The IAFC’s sleep deprivation report states, “Firefighters have documented increases in their risks for cardiac disease and malignancies, which are also illnesses that may be promoted by the chronic sleep deprivation associated with long work hours.” A review of statistics shows that fatigue may be responsible for the “disproportionately higher fireground injury rates observed in the early morning hours.” It also shows that, “Fatigue when driving may increase the risk of crashes when driving following long work hours. Long commutes following work may be a particular hazard.”
Firefighters’ sleep deprivation may be partly due to long hours or overnight shifts, but these factors can’t be blamed entirely. If a large percentage of American adults suffer from lack of sleep for other reasons, so do firefighters.
So what can be done about this problem?
Change Is Needed
Although it commissioned the study, the IAFC is not offering specific recommendations to address sleep deprivation.
“Everyone has a unique situation,” Lee says. “We can’t make any blanket statements about changes departments should make, because it can depend on individual station houses.”
Chiefs and their company officers can and should take steps to recognize and address sleep deprivation, but what they do, says Lee, is a local issue. “The report discusses how short naps can help with fatigue, and chiefs may delegate that to their company officers,” she says. “That has to be run through at a policy level.”
Fire Chief I. David Daniels of Renton, Wash., who serves on the IAFC board of directors and is a member of the Safety, Health & Survival Section, agrees: “Our focus is for the fire chief to establish policies that give company officers direction on what to do. We want to get firefighters to recognize that this issue exists, and is part of the overall issue of their wellness and fitness. We then want the chiefs to react in a way that they think is appropriate, because there is no cookie-cutter solution to this.”
One thing that all company officers should do, Daniels says, is take a hard look at the readiness of the individuals on their crews: “They have to be able to look a firefighter in the eye and know whether they’re capable of doing everything they’ll be asked on that shift—and that includes asking, are they drowsy? It’s not a sleep deprivation issue. It’s an issue of whether the person can perform in a way that’s safe for them and safe for others.”
He stresses that this is not necessarily a question of revising long shifts. “If it is a sleep deprivation issue, it has to be a policy issue,” Daniels points out. Policy changes might include approving of short naps during downtime, or making beds available to firefighters going off duty so they can sleep before driving home.
What Can You Do?
Every firefighter should be responsible for their rest. A good place to start is to read the IAFC study, “The Effects of Sleep Deprivation on Fire Fighters and EMS Responders,” available as a free downloadable PDF on the IAFC Web site at www.iafc.org/sleep. You can also watch a sleep deprivation training video on that Web page.
“We’re hoping that firefighters and EMS personnel will take a look at the video of the report,” says Lee. “They can then make changes in their schedules to recognize fatigue and proactively take steps to get more rest. You have to really be aware of what gives you the best rest and pay attention to what works for you.”