Is sleep the next great firefighter safety breakthrough?

If poor sleep is at the root of our injuries and illnesses, fixing it may be one of the biggest things to hit firefighter safety

For some years, I've been in a long-term, serious relationship with insomnia. We used to be a much hotter item, but see much less of each other as of late.

It's not what you'd call a fulfilling or fun relationship. I don't look forward to her visits; she can be quite abusive. Despite my efforts to break off the affair, she finds ways to creep back into my life at the most inopportune times.

As a recent study shows, many other firefighters and medics find themselves in a similar bad relationship with sleep. While the study's author is careful not to claim there's a direct causal relationship between firefighter health problems and sleep disorders, many of us intuitively believe there is and expect future research will bear that out.

The study linked, albeit correlatively, firefighter vehicle crashes and health problems like heart disease, diabetes and depression to poor sleep. It begs the question: Can solving the sleep issue be the key to drastically reduced firefighter death and injury — both on and off the job?

I suspect the answer will be yes.

Getting a handle on crashes, heart attacks and depression (read suicides) will go a long way to improving the length and quality of firefighters' lives. And that's a big deal.

Sleep deprivation, the chronic type, has a subtle, more devious side. Yes, running on only a few hours of sleep will put you in the same category as a drunk driver and can lead to catastrophe. But the effects of going on say five hours per night over a longer period can be less obvious but just as devastating as the vehicle crash.

It is well documented, and something I know all too well, that chronic sleep deprivation will impair your ability to learn, remember, reason and make sound decisions. And like any abusive relationship, you even begin to fool yourself that everything is OK.

Here's a quick and interesting read for more on the evils of sleep deprivation.

Firefighter injury, near-miss and line-of-duty-death reports almost always point to human error as a contributing factor. Those errors can be leadership errors, tactical errors or both.

The root of human errors comes down to an inability to accurately learn, remember, reason and make sound decisions. Thus, better sleep should lead to better decisions and less injury.

This research and others that came before it, such as the 1997 IAFC study, is exciting stuff. Improved sleep may prove to be as important to firefighter safety as was the advent of modern PPE and SCBA.

I hope work in this field continues with urgency. I also hope each firefighter takes a hard look at his or her relationship to sleep — and if that relationship is abusive and hurtful, pack that no-good mope's crap in a box and chuck it in the yard.

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