Study links firefighter accidents to sleep problems

fire Whiskeytown National Recreation Area
An incident base at Whiskeytown National Recreation Area in California, 2009. Photo by Carol Jandrall.

A study of almost 7,000 firefighters from municipal fire departments found that 37 percent screened positive for common sleep disorders, including obstructive sleep apnea, insomnia, restless leg syndrome, and shift work disorder.

The researchers found that compared with sound sleepers, those with a sleep disorder were about twice as likely to have a motor vehicle crash, to nod off while driving, and to have cardiovascular disease or diabetes. They were more than three times as likely to suffer from depression and anxiety.

The study, published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, said that nationwide 61 percent of firefighter on-duty fatalities are caused by heart attacks or motor vehicle crashes.

National Interagency Fire Center data that we reported for 1990 through 2014 shows that 45 percent of the wildland fire fatalities were from vehicle accidents or medical issues.

Wildland firefighter fatalities 1990-2014
Wildland firefighter fatalities, 1990-2014. Data from NIFC, compiled by Wildfire Today.

Most, 97 percent, of the 7,000 firefighters in the study worked extended shifts of at least 24 hours. Wildland firefighters work 8-hour shifts —  except when they don’t. While on fires their shift schedules and sleep routines are often disrupted. The 8-hour shift can be extended to 12 to 16 hours, and their usual sleeping times may be changed and sometimes shortened; not unlike the jet lag of traveling to a different time zone. The first shift on a fire may be longer than 16 hours and a crew used to working during the day can be placed on a night shift.

The municipal firefighters in the study work very different schedules from their brothers and sisters in wildland fire, so a direct comparison of sleep disorders and accidents is probably not valid, but this issue should be watched closely. Crew supervisors and incident management teams should, at least, see that firefighters have an opportunity to get an adequate amount of quality sleep.

The same journal that published this study has another interesting one titled, “The Association between Sleep Disturbances and Depression among Firefighters: Emotion Dysregulation as an Explanatory Factor”.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, Bill Gabbert now writes about it from the Black Hills.

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One thought on “Study links firefighter accidents to sleep problems”

  1. Municipal FFs should all work 10 hour shifts. Would save a ton of money and improve safety for extremely busy crews. But the rank and file would fight it bc it would get rid of the massive amount of time off and huge overtime opportunities. Wildland shifts are far too long for any rational safety considerations; but hey, it’s how you pay bills in December.

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