Sacrificing Sleep for the Love of the Job

By Stacey McKenna

Emergency Medical Services Providers — from Emergency Medical Technicians (EMTs) to Paramedics — provide 24-hour response and ambulance coverage. Though their duties may include driving, administering drugs, and assessing medical conditions, studies classify over half of workers as fatigued. This chronic debt in turn increases likelihood of injury, medical error, and safety-compromising behaviors.

Claire Hawks, 36, just entered her 14th year as a paramedic. For much of this time, she held a job with Poudre Valley Hospital, an ambulance service in Fort Collins, Colorado. Today, she works for three companies throughout the region, each with a different schedule. She keeps daunting hours, with long, constantly changing shifts and sometimes lengthy commutes. So I’m flattered that she agrees to chat with me via telephone one morning, squeezing our conversation into the limited time between work and errands.

“I can do anything,” she says. “24-hour shifts or 12-hour shifts. I can do days or nights for the 12. When I go to Estes Park, I usually do 48s to make it worth my time with the commute. My security job is different. I do private parties, music events. Those could be three days long. Or, they could be an evening.”

This erratic schedule means Hawks’ sleep also tends to be inconsistent. When she works nights, she waits to go to bed until the following evening. When she works 24s and 48s, sleep varies according to call volume. But, she says, even slow nights don’t allow for quality rest. “Last night, I slept from 11:00pm to 6:15 this morning,” she told me. “That’s a lot of sleep for me. But it’s a different quality of sleep, because there’s radio traffic going in the background, you’re not in your own bed, you’re constantly on alert. Everything wakes you up. It’s much different than sleeping at home.”

Though work often leaves Hawks , she rarely naps; she dislikes sleeping during the day. So, she says, “I just fight through it. Because my time off, I work to play just like everybody else. . . . So I just try to push through and be normal on my days off. Sleep that night then go back to work.”

But she’s not immune to the consequences of sleep debt. Extreme fatigue renders her overly emotional and when it’s prolonged, she says her physical health declines as well.

So why do it?

For Hawks, the demanding schedule’s benefits outweigh the downfalls, affording her flexibility and financial independence. EMTs and medics average $16.88 per hour, often without benefits. By working night shifts, she gets a slight pay bump. And with multiple jobs, she can stack shifts strategically. “I don’t have vacation time,” she explains. “I don’t have PTO, so last week when I went to Moab, I didn’t make any money. But my paycheck won’t change because the week before I worked 96 hours.”

But she insists there’s more to it than money and free time. The job fosters community. EMS co-workers become family. “It gets in your blood,” she says. “It becomes a huge part of who you are.”

Tags:  EMS Sleep Sleep & Work tired

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