ANDERSON — He’s sleeping soundly. Maybe he’s dreaming about his family.
Suddenly, the reality of the world comes crashing down around him, and he has to be ready to go immediately. Ready to save lives and livelihoods.
It’s the stressful life local firefighters live every day they work.
”You have to get used to it. You have to get used to going from zero to 100 in just a few minutes,” said Anderson Fire Department Battalion Chief Larry Towne.
Being a firefighter is stressful. One of the most stressful occupations. And there are studies that support how dangerous it is on the hearts and health of firefighters around the country. According to a joint study by the National Volunteer Fire Council and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, heart disease is the leading cause of on-duty death of U.S. firefighters. Not flames. Not smoke. Heart attacks.
Towne confirmed that.
”It’s one of the hardest things on firemen. Stress levels go all over the place,” Towne said. “That’s one of the things we really have to watch. Heart attacks are big in our business.”
AFD has more than 30 firefighters and emergency medical service medics. They each work 24-hour shifts, working every other day on three-day rotations. That’s pretty typical of non-volunteer fire departments in America. And like most good departments, AFD features amenities like TVs and weight rooms to keep rescue crews relaxed and feeling like they’re at home. And they stick to a typical schedule. Working on mornings and afternoons. Winding down on evenings. Sleeping, when they can, at nights.
”There aren’t too many people who can do that,” said registered polysomnographic technologist Karen Smith. “It takes a special kind of person.”
Smith studies sleep at the IU Health Sleep Disorders Center at Ball Memorial Hospital in Muncie. She said occupations like firefighter are most at risk for sleep deprivation and sleep disorders, as are professions that regularly cross time zones like pilots and flight attendants. Humans and animals are like flowers, she said, and we operate best when the sun is up.
”When the sun goes down, and you fight it with long periods of work, that’s dangerous,” she said. “A lot of disasters happen from 3 to 5 a.m. because that’s when we’re supposed to be getting our deepest sleep.”
The same concept is applied to phenomena like seasonal affective disorder, where long periods in the winter without consistent sunlight can lead to depression. Smith said because humans are driven by day-night rotations, she encourages people who work jobs with odd hours to wear sunglasses during the day.
”Just getting a little sunlight in your eyes will wake up your body. At least if you wear sunglasses, you can try to stay in that restful mode,” she said.
Fire Chief Phil Rogers said he’s constantly working to improve his department, in both health and performance. The Fire Department usually does about 19 runs a day, and the majority of those are ambulance runs for the medics. While he acknowledged the stress of the job, he said his department hasn’t run into stress or sleep-deprivation problems, crediting his supervisory battalion chiefs like Towne.
“I would think more metropolitans that have problems because they run so much, and perform a variety of duties,” Rogers said. “The guys love what they do and are good at what they do. For the most part, it’s like being at home. But when the alarm goes off, you have to be ready to get up and go.”
Towne said it’s the job of the battalion chiefs to stay in tune to the challenges the rescue teams face. Everyone handles it a little differently, and while the older veterans usually have no problem, the younger, less experienced members of the force need to be watched.
“It’s a funny service. You can go to any department around the country, and we all deal with the same issues,” Towne said. “It’s a real fraternity.”
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Results of May joint study by the National Volunteer Fire Council and Johns Hopkins School of Public Health Heart Disease: High Awareness & Concern u 75% of the surveyed firefighters/EMTs are more concerned about dying of a heart attack than in the line of duty u 93% are aware that the leading cause of firefighter fatalities is heart attack u 78% know at least one fellow firefighter who has suffered a heart attack