The brain needs sleep to perform nightly maintenance — for firefighters and everyone else

Tired Firefighters

At the top of the article: USFS photo.

The brain uses a quarter of the body’s entire energy supply, yet only accounts for about two percent of the body’s mass. So how does this unique organ receive and, perhaps more importantly, rid itself of waste? New research suggests it has to do with sleep.

In the TedMed video above, neuroscientist Jeff Iliff explains the connection between sleep and brain function.

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.

Wildland firefighters usually 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 and waking 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.

A firefighter sleep study conducted by the Missoula Technology Development Center between 2006 and 2008 found that sleep deprivation contributed to fatigue, stress, and impaired performance of Incident Management Team members.

I talked with pilots and other personnel that traveled with an air tanker to a new assignment. Depending on their original location, they flew across two to four time zones and after arrival, they started work about two hours earlier than usual. So the net change was four to six hours worth of jet lag when taking the new work schedule into account. After a couple of days at the new site two crewmembers told me that they were really tired, even though they were not physically working much harder than normal. Their supervisor eventually recognized this and made sure they got a day off.

That kind of disruption in a work/sleep/wake schedule is common among wildland firefighters, especially those that travel long distances to an assignment. It is possible that wildland fire managers do not recognize this and the negative effect it can have, or if they do, may feel there is little they can do to mitigate the problem.

Crew supervisors and incident management teams should at least strive to give firefighters an opportunity to get an adequate amount of quality sleep.

We have written before about the importance of sleep for wildland firefighters. Articles on Wildfire Today tagged “sleep”.

Author: Bill Gabbert

After working full time in wildland fire for 33 years, he continues to learn, and strives to be a Student of Fire. Google+