As though getting a solid night sleep wasn’t challenging enough for you while on shift, now we have proof that firefighters are at greater risk of suffering from some type of sleep disorders that makes it even worse. The result of a study on 7,000 firefighters nationwide was released in 2015 reporting that 37% of firefighters suffer from some sleep disorders such as Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder, sleep apnea and chronic sleep restriction (Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, 2015).
Let’s look at what some of these sleep disorders look like for your body. Circadian Rhythm Sleep-Wake Disorder means your body clock is constantly out of whack because your sleep/awake cycle is forever changing as the calls come in and as your work shift changes. Your body lives in this constant cycle where it knows that it needs to be alert the second that a call comes in, even if you are sleeping.
Sleep apnea is where your breath is pausing while you are sleeping, this can happen for seconds or minutes at a time. You stop breathing while you are sleeping and then your body recognizes what is happening and jolts you out of it through a loud snort or choking sound, so you start breathing again. After that, you continue to breathe as normal until the next time it happens throughout the course of your sleep cycle. Even though this can occur on average of 30 times a night, you generally don’t even register that you’re choked into breathing again. If you are sharing a bed or sleeping space with someone, they are probably more aware that it is happening than you are.
Just as someone in your sleeping space is probably aware if you suffer from sleep apnea, they are also probably very aware if you are snoring. Snoring is actually a sign that you might be suffering from sleep apnea because snoring can indicate that there is an obstruction of the airway and the air has to squeeze by to get in and out. The 2015 study mentioned above identified that 28.4% of firefighters have sleep apnea. That is a pretty high number compared to the 5% of the US population that has it (Statistic Brain Research Institute, 2016). It’s pretty safe to say that some attention needs to be given in this area for firefighters.
Chronic sleep restriction is just as it sounds; your sleep is restricted due to the nature of the job. You tend not to get the full amount of sleep needed in one stint of time for your body to go through the process of repair because you are consistently being awoken to respond to an emergency. Adults need on average of 8 hours of sleep a day to fully repair the body. How often does it happen that you get 8 hours of solid sleep, without interruption?
So how do you know if you have a sleep disorder?
It might be time to figure out if you have a sleep disorder. Do you wake up feeling groggy or with a sore throat like you were snoring all night long? Maybe you suffer from a sleep disorder and don’t even know it. You can take this self-assessment here and see what your results are: http://www.usc.edu/programs/cwfl/assets/pdf/sleep_test.pdf or you could just ask anyone at the station, and they will probably tell you just how badly you snore, that is if they can hear you over their snoring.
What do I do about it?
Just because you might suffer from one of these sleep disorders, doesn’t necessarily mean you are going to have to sleep with one of those machines over your mouth and nose that makes you sound like Darth Vader when he is breathing, there are other treatments available and some you can even do on your own. I am going to give you a few options to try, but you should still see a doctor to dig a little deeper into the problem.
If you have a few extra pounds hanging around from the winter, or maybe even last winter, work on losing them. Not only does that help with your sleep apnea but it reduces your risk for heart disease too. So try just 30 minutes of exercise a day, this exercise does not include throwing on your gear and blazing your way into a burning building. You need actual planned cardio; your body will thank you.
Another option can be to change the position you sleep, try not to sleep on your back. There are plenty of new memory foam pillows out there now that can help you sleep in positions to support your head and neck for better breathing. So get online and order one, well maybe order two, one for the station and one for those occasional nights at home in your bed.
Sometimes your mind can get in the way of letting you fall asleep and stay asleep, and this can lead to sleep disorders. Meditation can help; I’m not saying you need to sit on a pillow with your legs crossed chanting umms. Meditation is as simple as finding a quiet space for 10-15 minutes and focusing on your breathing. Once you are in a space, find a comfortable way to sit. Close your eyes and take deep breaths in and out, focus on each breath you take. Focus on the feeling of the air coming into your lungs and out of your lungs. Breathe in for a count of ten and then exhale for a count of ten, emptying your mind of any thoughts except for the feeling of air entering and exiting your lungs. Just try it for 5 minutes and work your way up to more time. Once you are getting the hang of it, there are so many resources online if you search for Meditation or Mindfulness that can guide you even further.
If you think that you might have a sleep disorder, you should still schedule an appointment with your doctor to make sure there isn’t something worse going on. They can also help offer other methods of treatment. Failing to sleep soundly can be the beginning of even greater issues such as heart disease, obesity, a weakened immune system, memory loss and increased risk of death. You owe it to yourself, the firefighters at your station and your loved ones to take care of yourself.
I am going to start this article off with a minor disclaimer before we get into the meat of the post.
First, yes, I said meat…and this is not going to be anything about fire department-related decals. For all you Ricky Rescue whacker-babies, I apologize.
Memorial stickers, roadside crosses adorned with flowers, wreaths, bears and any other sort of roadside memorial markers are seen all over the place by passers-by. Literally coast to coast, city streets, major highways and winding dirt roads have something that people use to get a little closer, and there is nothing wrong with it.
What people outside emergency services don’t know or consider is what that scene looked like before it was cleaned up enough to open the roadway back up. What the cars looked like just after the wreck. What the scene was like when we were inside the cars, trying to save a life.
What that scene looks like inside our minds every time we pass one of those roadside reminders.
In and around the city I currently work for, there are three different memorial decals that the locals have for three separate incidents that I just so have happened to have been called to. These three wrecks stand out to me because of the nature of each call. All three scenes involved a fatality or multiple fatalities and all have permanently scarred my mind. I literally see those stickers daily. Is it wrong of the owner to have them? Of course not. Do they, would they or should they understand why I cringe when I look up and read a name or see a date? Again, of course not. It’s my job. I signed up for this.
As I mentioned in my article “Ghosts,” I had made a decision on one of those fatality calls that could have jeopardized my career, and not only that, the quality of life of a patient that lived in the same passenger compartment. I have since handled that ghost. It comes back every time I drive down that street or see one of the window decals. Another decal I regularly see is usually in the morning when I drop my son off at school. The people ahead of me don’t know me from Adam, and in fact, I don’t know them. But I do know the names on their back window. I go back to that cold, muddy morning. A splintered telephone pole, air bags deployed, crushed metal and that smell…
We ALL know about it. I can smell it every time I see those names.
The crosses I see along the two most highly-traveled highways around have multiple crosses/memorials laid out at locations that I can remember the scene. I can remember the rubble and devastation that had occurred just moments before our arrival.
There are 2-3 along the highway while traveling one direction and a few more while coming back. One location the patient was not from here, and it’s obvious by the condition of the cross as it was placed some six years ago. That guy was ejected, pinned under the vehicle and had a limb entrapped between a passenger door and the “B” post. The entire scene was on top of an ant bed.
Another set, yes “set”, of crosses sit at a railroad intersection in the response area of my first volunteer department. I make it a point to go by there once a year or so.
I can picture all those faces like it happened yesterday, and that wreck was nearly ten years ago. I get a vacant look on my face; I can almost feel it. My mind races back to the incident that memorial was dedicated for. I relive it for a few seconds, and I drag my brain back to whatever it was I was doing.
Am I any different than any of the firefighters reading this right now?
NOT AT ALL!!!
My ghosts do not affect my day to day. Generally speaking, I have pretty good control. My situation is more of a traumatic scene observation more than a direct traumatic experience towards me. I speak a little more openly about it than most firefighters I know, and that scares me. I’m scared for them.
We all have ghosts, skeletons, and demons. We all have scenes in our minds of calls that we cannot ever forget. You know what? It is completely OK to handle your mental health however you see fit within healthy and legal limitations, of course.
I have handled my ghosts, and I handle them every day. One call specifically, I have not gone a day without seeing that kid’s face, and I have dealt with it in my own way. I have reached out to a mentor. I have stress outlets in my life, and I know for a fact that I have a support team if I ever need one. A few days after the incident, I was speaking with a mentor about it on duty. I had to get it off my chest. Right in the middle of the conversation the bells rang for an ambulance call. I had fallen, and I had gotten back on my horse.
Just like you do!
We are here for each other.
First responder mental heath and suicide is something I refuse to take lightly. I’ve known people that have taken their lives because of the things they couldn’t get out of their heads.
They didn’t ask for help.
Below is a link for two of our already published articles. Also, below is the website and a suicide prevention phone number directed specifically for first responders.
Let me first start off by saying that I am no gym connoisseur. I have been back in the gym lately, and cannot help but notice the vast variety of people in there. I scan my eyes constantly when I am “in the zone” of sweat and pain. As I keep pushing myself through the threshold of soreness and wobbly legs, I try to think about other things so I can keep my mind off it. I can’t help but notice how the different types of people at the gym are ever so similar to the different types of people and attitudes in the fire service. But whats my point here? Well, I first thought was that we were all in the gym at the same time. We are all strangers to one another, but we seem to spend the same amount of time together, nearly every day. Just like at the firehouse, we are on a schedule. 3-7 nights a week, we all see each other and give the innocent head-bob as we walk past one another in the hallway between the Juice Bar and the free weights.
The Quiet Ones
The ones that come to the club, do what they have to do and go home. These types can be one of two different kinds. These are the group of people that could be the ones in the corner, trying to stay away from the stress in their life and are just wanting to relieve some of it by working out, even if it isn’t an incredibly hard workout. At least they can take their mind off of their daily tasks. Destress. Slow down for a little bit, and take care of their body so their body can take care of them. These types could be the ones that go to work, show up on time, collect a day’s pay, and go home. They could be that volunteer that shows up to monthly meetings and a couple of calls here and there but wants to be sure he has a T-Shirt to wear every day. By-golly, he sure does flash that badge when he has a meal at a local food joint. He earned that badge. He earned it by coming to the firehouse and calling himself a firefighter. They don’t speak to anyone because they have been publicly humiliated before. They want to avoid the confrontation or embarrassment if anyone calls them out again in front of the group.
They could also be the one that is extremely hell-bent about everything they do. They don’t go with a friend to the gym because their workout routine has no time for a friend. They don’t need anyone to keep them focussed. They don’t want anyone in their way when they have their heart rate up, and their testosterone is pumping. These are the guys that come to the firehouse and are some of the baddest-ass firemen that are out there. They are the ones busting their behinds out on the training ground and are the ones that are out in the bay doing their own combat challenge, no matter what the rest of the crew thinks of them. They know their job. They know their responsibilities without needing an order from the officer. They know what is expected of them when the Emergency Brake pops and they know they will get the job done. No matter what.
“Anything for them gains…” “Check out my abs…” “You see that girl over there?”
I laugh at some of the conversations I overhear. Especially when you get a couple or more guys working out together. It almost seems like these types spend more time talking than actually lifting anything. Standing around, huddled in a circle around the one person that is physically doing a set of reps. They stand there, flexing in the mirror, talking to each other about “that chick” in the yoga pants over there. I wish I had the time to actually see how much working out they were doing versus how much dialogue they were producing.
We all have heard the “talkers” at the firehouse. We all laugh as they are spewing out phrases to civilians or visitors like, “Real firemen wear leather helmets…” “I’ve seen so much fire in my time…” Blah blah blah…..I cringe when I hear someone acting a fool. I am almost embarrassed for them. I almost feel like they are a slow-motion train wreck, and I’m just sitting there watching it all unfold. I find it kind of funny that we can associate a group of dudes making a fool of themselves in the gym with a group of people that we all have in our own perspective departments. Trust me, you’re not the only one….we all have them.
They sure do try don’t they? These are the ones that no matter how hard they are working at it, they just can’t succeed and better themselves. They eat while they are lifting, or they are walking at the speed of fart. No matter how much time, effort, or money they put into their attempt at becoming better, it just doesn’t show or work out for them. They can have all the certifications in the world, but sometimes they are only as good as toilet paper. The ones that are trying so hard to get off their probation, but haven’t been able to since they can’t remember the required material. Or the ones that have been told time and time again to fix their actions, and become a better firefighter, but there’s just no hope. And my personal favorite….the fellas that are there for a selfie. “In front of the rowing machine!”…”Look at me, I’m working out!” “I’m a real firefighter now!” “Look at this house I’m standing in front of while an entire family lost everything!” Not cool. Pictures have their place….in front of devastation with a smile on your face is not it.
Some people are are just not cut out for this job.
And then there’s the meat heads. The over-the-top, crazy-ripped, not even a little bit easy on the eyes, deformed, testosterone injected, protein shaking, weight dropping, “Ooooiiiii” screaming, belt-wearing meat heads. They are the most intimidating/scary bunch in the gym. Just look at them! They walk around, wearing their spandex shorts, weight lifting sandals, and muscle tees. With their unnatural looking, chiseled muscles, and loud voices. They are clearly the ones that have spent the most time in the gym, or at least, look like they have. They DO have impersonators, though. The ones that would rather inject their muscles than work for them. We have all seen this when we have an intimidating officer, who has seen their fair share of “sh!t”, and have a grudge against anyone under them. The senior firefighter with more years on the job than the rookie has been walking this earth. They are not always bad, but some are more intimidating than others. You are afraid to piss them off because you’re not sure if they will make it a learning experience, or an embarrassing one. These are the guys that feel they don’t need to worry about re-racking their weights or doing station chores because they’ve served their time and have earned their spot. And as for impersonators? They are the ones that have taken all the classes, and have been an assumable/acting officer for all but three weeks, and are throwing orders around out like they’ve been doing it for 30 years.
All in all, we have all of these types of people in our departments. Some have more than others, but we all have seen some sort of this activity in the firehouse setting. I just wanted to share some of my thoughts as I spent my evening trying to better myself. I am not intending on hurting feelings, just sharing some thoughts. If I hurt some, hopefully, it’s not because you are one of the above groups.