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Is there a better way to wake up for emergencies?

Too much workplace stress can be harmful – and firefighters get a lot of exposure

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While there’s no single solution to the stress firefighters face, there are technologies that can help limit the physiological impacts of rough awakenings and frantic dispatches on first responders at rest.

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It’s 3 a.m., and the still of the night is punctured by an abrupt, piercing alarm and bright lights. You are startled awake and join your colleagues in leaping from your bunks to respond to the call. You have no idea what you’re about to face – maybe a raging fire or tragic accident, perhaps hazardous materials, possibly even a crime scene – but you know it could be bad.

Firefighting careers come with much responsibility. Firefighters are the first to respond to critical calls and witness death and suffering nearly daily. As we all know, this can lead to stress – a lot of it. A few years ago firefighting was named America’s most stressful job, and U.S. Fire Administration data shows firefighters have three times more risk of dying of a stress-related incident than in a traffic accident. A 2022 review of literature examining post-traumatic stress in the field found a frightening firefighter PTSD rate of 57%.

Severe stress, in turn, can affect firefighters’ health and well-being. One 2019 study linked it to heightened risk of cardiovascular diseases, another to increased musculoskeletal problems. Other research connects it to threats like depression, substance abuse, suicidality and some forms of cancer. “The long-term activation of the stress response system … can disrupt almost all your body’s processes,” warns the Mayo Clinic.

While there’s no single solution to alleviating the stress firefighters face on the job, there are technologies that can help limit the physiological impacts of rough awakenings and frantic dispatches on first responders during their essential periods of rest.

At US Digital Designs, the well-being of those responders was a major concern for the designers of the company’s Phoenix G2 Fire Station Alerting System. As a result, that system has several key features developed to provide gentler, more targeted alerts to personnel while enhancing the speed and accuracy of the dispatch process.

One is zoned alerting: In stations with multiple crews, where every crew member may not need to be dispatched every time, zoned alerting can be targeted to only those being activated. In other dorms, sleeping or resting members remain undisturbed.

Another is ramping lights and audio: The audio and visual signals used to wake sleeping responders start at a low intensity and increase gradually, avoiding sudden bursts of powerful sounds and lights that may leave awakened providers confused, anxious and jumpy and exacerbate their stress impacts.

“Two years post-implementation, I am still surprised by the number of users who provide unprovoked comments about the slow-ramping tones and red ramping lights and how it has helped them respond better to nighttime calls,” said Todd Tuttle, who recently retired as assistant chief of the Greensboro Fire Department in North Carolina. “Of all the features and benefits of the US Digital Designs system, these top all others. Our users love not having to look for a light switch that blinds them with white light, as well as the progressive alerting of the event.”

Research in this area is still limited, but a 2016 study of ramping tones found them associated with smaller increases in firefighters’ heart rates than alarms that started at high volumes. These firefighters strongly preferred the ramping tones and perceived them as an effective way to reduce stress.

Beyond the emergency services, there’s the growing popularity of sunrise alarms, which research has linked to reduced feelings of sleep inertia.

“If you’re using more subtle sounds or subtle light, that stimulus might be enough to kick you into a lighter stage of sleep without completely jolting you awake from a really deep state,” sleep specialist Vikas Jain, M.D., FAASM, told “That may be why people might feel a little bit better.”

How you wake up “directly impacts your thoughts immediately when you wake up and, in turn, impacts your mood,” added sleep researcher S. Justin Thomas, Ph.D.

Besides calling personnel to action in a smarter way, the Phoenix G2 system can help reduce responders’ response times and improve their situational awareness with its nearly instant delivery of incident information via unique visual and auditory peripherals, including message signs, TVs, speakers and a mobile app. This communicates effectively what to expect and allows first responders to prepare appropriately. Automated dispatch alerting provides added benefits for dispatchers, who need not send alerts manually and can therefore focus on their callers and other functions without alerts stacking up. Easier management of these processes should benefit dispatcher efficiency as well.

Security comes from built-in redundancies, including backup servers, backup power and a PoE (power over ethernet) design that limits possible problem points and keeps the system functioning even in cases of CAD or power failure. All parts of the system are continuously monitored, and both dispatch center and station personnel are made aware of any problems.

All that reliability means less for firefighters and their chiefs to worry about as they mentally go from 0 to 60 when calls come in. With advanced, thoughtful alerting methods, they can wake gently and respond more quickly with key information in hand from the first alert.

While no technology can remove all the obstacles from a job as inherently demanding as firefighting, US Digital Designs’ Fire Station Alerting System is designed to mitigate some of the more negative impacts and help first responders function more healthily and effectively.

For more visit US Digital Designs.

John Erich is a career writer and editor with more than two decades of experience in emergency services media, currently serving as a project lead for branded content with Lexipol Media Group.