Inadequate sleep can help explain high rates of suicide and cardiac events among firefighters

Studies indicate sleep deprivation increases susceptibility to cancer, cardiac disease, and post-traumatic stress disorder.

Firefighters sleep wildfire
USFS photo.

An article by Eric Saylors at emphasizes how important sleep is to firefighters.

He reports that one study found men kept awake between 10 p.m. and 3 a.m. showed a 70 percent reduction of cancer-fighting immune cells known as “natural killers” after one night. These cells detect and control early signs of cancer. The data in the study indicates that even a modest disturbance of sleep produces a reduction of natural immune responses.

Below are excerpts from Mr. Saylor’s article, which also draws information from several other researchers:

“Lack of quality sleep could explain why cardiac events are common in firefighters, regardless of fitness programs. ”

“Rosaline Cartwright, professor of psychology in neuroscience, explains the mind needs sleep to processes stressful events. Without sleep the brain cannot decouple the memory of tragic events and the physiological response. Essentially, if you can’t sleep on it, you can’t get over it. This explains a new epidemic in the fire service; firefighter suicide.”

“Cartwright’s research suggests the mind needs dreams followed by REM sleep and to process upsetting experiences. In other words, you have to recreate tough experiences in your dreams so your mind can break them down. Without the combination of REM sleep and dreams, memories of traumatic events remain fresh in the person’s mind. As a result, a firefighter who is sleep deprived accumulates traumatic events like a trash can that is never emptied.”

“Contributing to cancer, cardiac events, and PTSD, lack of sleep may be the greatest cause of firefighter deaths.”

Eric Saylors is an instructor, author, pilot, consultant, and 3rd gen firefighter with a Masters degree in security studies from the Naval Post Graduate School.

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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.

One thought on “Inadequate sleep can help explain high rates of suicide and cardiac events among firefighters”

  1. I found that after more then 10 days on the line or even the “soft” jobs in helicopters or managing a helibase my critical thinking skills took a real dive and I was constantly tired along with an increase of being irritated. Yes, poor sleeping conditions on the ground, smoke, noise and some long hours all added up. I think all of these create long term health problems. I miss the excitement of fire but when the time came to hang up my Nomex for good, I did not miss the stress. PTSD is something that can be dealt with to some extent before the fire through proper awareness training and after with therapy. Nothing to be embarrassed about. I learned about PTST the hard way on my own after returning from the Vietnam war. Many of my military friends did not and took their own lives. after returning to this country.


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