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Issues First Responders Face with Sleep and Why it can be Dangerous

We all know that first responders, such as paramedics, firefighters, and other emergency personnel, are crucial to saving lives and helping in emergencies. By the nature of their job, they need to be on their toes and able to make quick decisions that can be the difference between life and death for those they are helping. Being alert and ready to make swift decisions and responses, both physically and mentally, is an inherent part of any first responder role.

That’s a lot to ask of anyone. Many take for granted that the responders will be able to make crucial decisions in the moments that count the most. Imagine these real-life situations:

  • A firefighter trying to climb up to rescue someone from a burning building.
  • An ambulance driver is trying to focus on winter road conditions during a storm while transporting someone gravely ill.
  • A police officer is trying to help to diffuse a hostile situation.

Now imagine these scenarios if the responder hasn’t slept in 24 or 36 hours. Without proper sleep, their reaction times slow, and their ability to focus is diminished, and most importantly, this sleep deprivation can affect their longterm health.

For first responders, getting good consistent sleep can be a challenge. First responders don’t always work one 8 hour shift each day. 24-hour shifts often include blocks for rest, but if an emergency calls come in, the sleep blocks don’t happen. Some consume caffeinated products to stay more alert, but that can impact them when it’s finally a chance to sleep and rest, with caffeine still in their system. Insomnia, shift sleep disorder, sleep apnea, and restless leg syndrome are just some of the sleep disorders that can impact the sleep that a first responder gets.

Sleep Disorders that May Affect First Responders:

Insomnia

Insomnia may be present if experiencing an inability to initiate or maintain sleep. It may also take the form of early morning awakening in which the individual awakens several hours early and is unable to resume sleeping. 

Shift Sleep Disorder

Shift sleep disorder often occurs when an individual’s current wake/sleep schedule and the endogenous circadian rhythm (one’s biological clock). When shifts are 24 on and 48 off, or during nights versus the day, they can disrupt the circadian rhythm and further sleep deprivation. One out of every five shift workers is at risk of shift sleep disorder.

Sleep Apnea

Studies show a high rate of sleep apnea among first responders. Sleep apnea is a common sleeping disorder that occurs when someone has one or more pauses in breathing while sleeping.

Restless Leg Syndrome

Restless legs syndrome (RLS) is a common disease that may prevent people from falling asleep or staying asleep. 

Sleep deprivation can impact alertness and can lead to an increased risk of medical issues, including anxiety, weight gain, and other conditions. But what is there to DO about sleep deprivation and the impact it has on first responders, when so many of them don’t work an 8-hour shift and go home each day, or when they are called upon to make quick decisions in emergencies daily?

Optimize Sleep Time and Environment

Even if a first responder doesn’t have time to get a full 7 hours of sleep before a shift, a nap can do a lot to help recharge and rest your body. Find a well-fitting sleep mask to block out light, and invest in some quality earplugs. These products can mimic day and night with lighting to help keep the circadian rhythms in order.

Seek Help

If first responders are having trouble sleeping or experiencing constant fatigue, a physician can help. Seeking a professional consultation and having a sleep study done from a sleep specialist is a great place to start. An expert sleep doctor can help to determine if there are any physical barriers to getting quality sleep, like sleep apnea, and can help to offer a plan to get the most out of whatever amounts of sleep you can. 

Our doctors may recommend a home sleep apnea test. These tests are completed in your home versus a lab and can help identify or rule out moderate to severe sleep apnea. 

Call one of our Expert Sleep Medicine offices today to schedule an appointment with one of our sleep specialists so you can start sleeping well again!