Our circadian rhythm is our body’s internal 24-hour clock. It works by taking cues from the sun’s daily appearance. When properly aligned with daylight hours, our circadian rhythm works well. However, fighting that daily light cycle by attempting to be productive late into the night — rather than getting 7-9 hours of continuous sleep — can cause the body and brain to clash with each other. This physical conflict can lead to acute (sudden onset) sleep deprivation, chronic (ongoing) sleep disorders, and additional physical and mental health problems. This issue is especially prevalent with people who work overnight hours or irregular shifts, including firefighters.
So, what can you do about it? How can you help your team protect their mental health and get the sleep they need? Here’s what you need to know.
Why Is Sleep Important?
Good sleep is vital to our health. In addition to physically resting the body, sleep helps remove toxins from our brain tissue that accumulate during waking hours.
Conversely, getting less sleep than our bodies need — a condition known as sleep deprivation — can impair brain function and weaken our ability to reason. Problem-solving, attention to detail and physical energy — skills that are vital to a firefighter’s safety and job performance — can be diminished with lack of sleep, resulting in slower thinking and poor judgement.
To compound matters, there are chronic physical and mental health risks associated with sleep deprivation, such as:
- Cardiovascular disease
- Aches and pains
What Causes Sleep Deprivation In Firefighters?
Stressors such as disruptive bedroom environments, poor work schedules or daily tense situations could lead to sleep disruption for anyone. Combining these pressures makes for especially unhealthy situations.
Firefighters have all the ingredients for disrupted sleep:
- Dormitory areas often host multiple employees, resulting in potentially disruptive sleeping environments.
- Schedules are anything but regular or routine. Fire and rescue calls can come at all hours of the day and night, fragmenting their sleep patterns.
- Firefighters need to be constantly vigilant when on the scene of a fire, to save lives and avoid physical injuries.
- The events they witness can cause emotional trauma and mental anxiety, resulting in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).
Everyone periodically runs the risks of sleep deprivation, but firefighter sleep disorders are more prevalent due their 24-hour work cycles. A few of the sleep disorders first responders might experience include:
- Insomnia, which is characterized by difficulty falling and/or staying asleep.
- Hypersomnia, also known as excessive daytime sleepiness. Hypersomniacs can doze off at work or while driving.
- Parasomnia, a disruptive sleep disorder that occurs when waking. Parasomnias may include nightmares and sleepwalking.
What Can You Do?
Here are three measures that fire chiefs can take to recognize and reduce firefighter sleep deprivation:
- Incorporate smart sleep trackers: Today’s smart watches and wearable fitness trackers are equipped with sleep analyzers that can distinguish restful sleep from tossing and turning.
- Establish “quiet” hours: Fire companies can set aside certain hours each day for resting and napping — likely when they tend to get the fewest calls. If the firefighters aren’t training or running calls, noisy activities such as loud music or boisterous gaming can be discouraged during this time.
- Encourage the use of calming phone apps: Smart phones have access to dozens of free apps dedicated to mindfulness, deep-breathing and sleeping. Firefighters can try several apps — from white noise to the sounds of a flowing stream — to find the right one for them.
As emergency first responders, firefighters are essential employees who cannot afford sleep deprivation. That’s why everyone at BlowHard Fans is dedicated to health and safety. Our line of positive pressure ventilation (PPV) fans helps create safer environments for first responders by quickly and efficiently removing heat and smoke from buildings. This improved atmosphere can increase firefighters’ ability to attack fires and conduct search-and-rescue operations, while improving survivability rates.