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Health and wellness for firefighters has been a hot topic for many decades. It’s important for firefighters to be aware of some of the personal health hazards they may be facing in order to understand and implement ways to improve their overall health and wellbeing. One issue that firefighters face is sleep deprivation. It can be difficult for on-duty firefighters and emergency responders to get a good night’s sleep. At times, being immediately awoken to attend calls during the night can have an impact on sleep patterns and sleep deprivation.
While others can go home and sleep for the recommended hours and be ready for work the next morning. Firefighters often can’t sleep, don’t or won’t. For the fire service, their drive, desire combined with a culture that keeps working until the job is done, can create situations where firefighters don’t take care of themselves because they are helping others. This leads to firefighters not receiving the amount of sleep needed.

Lack of Sleep Implications

It’s important to remember that inadequate sleep for firefighters has the same effect on other human beings. As a nation, individuals are sleeping less and attempting to accomplish more during their waking hours. No one can perform at their peak level without adequate sleep, and at times it can be a safety hazard. Nowhere are these trends more apparent than for firefighters and EMS responders because they are tasked with the immediate care of our society 24/7.

Getting enough sleep is essential. Sleep deprivation is known to cause increased errors in tasks that require alertness, negative implications on vigilance and quick decision-making skills, among other consequences. Sleep deprivation can occur because of long work hours with chronic sleep loss, resulting in decreased ability to think clearly, feelings of depression, stress, irritability, obesity, digestive disorders and heart disease—to name a few. Moreover, interesting enough, these effects are not predicted by how tired individuals are feeling. People who are chronically sleep deprived, frequently don’t perceive their lack of sleep as a problem. Outside of personal risks, adverse effects of shift work can also have a negative implication on social relationships and cause family disruption.

However, although there are negative implications associated with chronic sleep deprivation, longer work shifts and condensed work weeks, they also have their advantages for certain careers, especially firefighters and EMS responders. The real challenge is to be able to achieve the benefits of the work structure while minimizing the damaging implications on performance and adverse health effects that long shifts and sleep deprivation have on workers.

Tips to Sleep Better

What can you do, especially like firefighters, if your career requires you to work long shifts? There are small things you can implement in your life to sleep better at night.

First, it’s important for supervisors to identify individuals who are more suited for shift work, longer hours and provide coping strategies when observing a worker’s predisposition because of problems resulting from sleep deprivation.

Second, even if you aren’t aware of being woke up from outside light and noise—your sleep quality may be compromised during the day. Therefore, to maximize your sleep, eliminate noise and light. Easy ways are to use eye masks, earplugs, room darkening shades, turning off your telephone, and reducing background noise by using an air conditioner or a white noise machine.

Third, while having caffeinated beverages during the first half of a night shift does enhance alertness, consuming caffeine during the last half of a shift obstructs your ability to fall asleep after you are off work. Try to stay away from caffeine towards the end of your shift.

Fourth, getting your family and loved ones to understand the effects of shift work and what they can do to help you sleep is also useful. People you are closest to can recognize ongoing problems, irritable moods, and help to provide you with solutions. Also, at least supporting and helping you to have a conducive sleep environment.

Fifth, avoid a commuting risk by assisting your coworkers with alternative means of getting home besides driving—such as a place for workers to nap before driving home.

Sixth, napping is also a useful strategy that can be used on and off work. Naps can be taken when you know you have a long night to lessen fatigue. When starting a series of night shifts, a two-hour nap taken during the evening before work can improve your alertness. Short 20-minute naps can also be used in restoring mental abilities.

Firefighters may have a higher prevalence of sleep deprivation, but it’s important to realize that when untreated, these problems can magnify and inhibit your overall wellbeing. Working together and taking countermeasures for sleep deprivation can help you be happier, healthier, and increase your overall wellbeing.