Why responders need to sleep, seriously

With a move toward 48-hour shifts and many of us working second jobs, it’s risky to subject the body and mind to a constant state of readiness


This study about sleep problems among responders has serious implications for anyone who works counter to the normal circadian rhythms humans are supposed to follow.

While it hasn't been fully quantified, those of us in public safety, with the need to go from zero to 60 in a matter of seconds, may suffer even greater consequences from performing shift work. 

Stories abound in EMS where medics fall asleep at the wheel, waiting for a stoplight or at a stop sign. Many of us have run calls where we can't recall how we got there, or the details of the incident immediately afterwards.

Scary stuff. Add with this sobering information about the incidence of sudden cardiac deaths and the rate of serious car crashes, and it's simply horrifying.

I don't accept the idiom that "it's part of the job." It's not.

Many of us have to work two or more jobs in order to support a family. Some of us choose to work a "side job" that generates income for the new boat or vacation, robbing our bodies of much needed down time. The salaries that most of us receive are not sufficient to allow us to live a full, enriching life ─ one that balances work, play, and the joys of living. 

Working toward retirement is no guarantee either. I personally know of too many colleagues who have died within a few years of this goal. What's the point?

48-hour shifts

Here's another concern: At least in California, there has been a trend to move toward 48-hour shifts in the fire service. I know of no study yet that shows this, but intuitively that makes little sense.

Even if it's a slow station, sleep doesn't come easy at work. Subjecting the body and mind to a constant state of readiness simply cannot be beneficial.

Add in the variable of a busier call volume, and I can't begin to fathom what toll we take from being awake for the good part of 48 hours. Motivationally, how can one maintain composure and professionalism when all you want to do is sleep?

I have more than a few friends who are some of the nicest folks in the world, but turn ugly as they exhaust themselves. Worse, the grumpiness continues after the shift ends, affecting family and friends.

I don't know what the solutions are to a culturally ingrained work practice. The fact is, we need to be available to respond 24/7, every day of the year. Staying purposefully healthy, knowing the health risks, and minimizing poor work practices might lead to a healthier, more fulfilling life as well as a career.

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