Alarm tones rouse Poudre Fire Authority’s Jenna Ladowski, 35, jolting her from the depths of REM to emergency-ready in moments. She and her colleagues step into their gear and climb into the 45,000-pound engine. The garage door opens and Ladowski pulls into the streets of ireort Collins, Colorado, preparing her tired eyes for the glare of stoplights and oncoming traffic.
“Obviously, the day calls are no big deal, but any calls when you’re getting up from #sleep can be a challenge,” she explains. As a Driver-Operator, Ladowski must be ready to drive within one minute of waking.
The U.S. is home to over a million firefighters. Responsible not only for putting out fires, these first responders handle a variety of medical, hazmat, and accident-related emergencies. The job demands 24-hour coverage and fire departments employ more than 150 different work schedules to meet their specific needs. Most agencies use 24-hour shifts, with 48-hour stints coming in second and 12- or 8-hour rotations the least common.
Thus, during a typical work day, most firefighters not only respond to calls, but eat, train, exercise and try to sleep. Days off — especially in-between days for the majority working 24s — may be too packed with chores and family obligations to offer time for catch-up.
Ross Reinking, 44, has been a firefighter for over 20 years and with Poudre Fire Authority for over 17. A Captain at a busy dual company station, he observes, “Constant sleep debt is the norm for most firefighters, even if they don’t realize it.”
Disrupted sleep increases risk for health and mental health problems, likely contributing to firefighters’ high rates of heart attacks and traffic accidents. Additionally, firefighters themselves worry about sleep deficits affecting their quality of work. “I can recognize the difference in my attention to detail and decision making capabilities when rested versus in sleep debt,” Reinking says.
But the 24-hour coverage is necessary. And, despite sleep struggles, most firefighters enjoy the quality of life and work afforded by their shift schedules. So what can be done to minimize fatigue?
Most firefighters try to sneak “safety naps” on days off or during quiet moments at the station. While this quick fix can be instrumental for helping firefighters feel rested, it’s often prohibited by busy work schedules and hectic lives.
So optimizing regular sleep is essential. Ladowski relies on sleep routines and a comfortable space. “Keeping a regular sleep schedule at home really helps me,” she says. “And I make my space at work very comfortable for me and have a bedtime routine at work. Reading really helps. It winds me down and separates the day from going to sleep.”
Prioritizing rest during down time can make a big difference, too. “I crash hard on my days off, but usually total 7.5 hours of sleep on those days,” Reinking explains. “It’s not until I go on vacation or have days off that I realize how tired I was. I can sleep for 8 to 10 hours a night for 3 or 4 nights in a row. Then I notice the difference in the way I feel. We love vacation!”