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.