Sleepin’ Ain’t Easy, Part 2

By Anne Gagliano

Sleepin’ ain’t easy for the firefighter. Shift work combined with stress hormones, including cortisol, are the primary culprits. The hypervigilant firefighter sleeps with one eye open, and this impedes REM sleep. Over time, many firefighters develop serious sleep issues including sleep apnea, shift work disorder, insomnia, and restless leg syndrome. Sleep issues often lead to sleep deprivation, and sleep deprivation has serious implications. “No aspect of our biology is left unscathed by sleep deprivation.”—Professor Matthew Walker, Berkley. All causes of mortality are affected by lack of sleep such as cancer, heart attack, diabetes, obesity, exhaustion (which leads to accidents), and suicide, the details of which are examined more in my previous column and thoroughly in my book, Challenges of the Firefighter Marriage.

In writing this, I’m hoping to impact the firefighter sleep culture. Being “awake” is addictive, cool even—tough. It takes dedication to save lives in the deep dark night–not a task for the feint of heart. Admirable, no doubt. But because I love a firefighter, I care about his health, which is dramatically impacted by sleep deprivation. Yours, too, firefighter. Serious issues, serious implications. But the good news is this: Just as you can catch up on dehydration and malnutrition, so too can a person catch up on sleep. The cycle can be broken, and health restored. Sleep has been proven to be the greatest legal performance enhancing drug that most people are probably neglecting (Professor Walker). My years of experience and research have helped me find solutions to help my wired, tired firefighter sleep. They are simple solutions, but simple does not necessarily mean easy. The following are a few to get you started, with the hope that you’ll continually research and find even more.

Noise and Light. Hypervigilance renders a firefighter easily awakened by sound and light. For this reason, my husband Mike and I have slept with white noise for years. It really does help. We’ve used a fan or an air purifier to get a continuous, purring sound. This drowns out the neighbor’s barking dogs, the cacophony of birdsong in the trees outside our bedroom, and even the distant ring of the telephone (which should never be kept in a firefighter’s bedroom). The white noise also tells the firefighter’s subconscious that this is home, not the firehouse, which can become confusing to a sleepy mind. The goal is to reach the restorative REM stage, and we’ve found white noise to be helpful with this. We also travel with a white noise machine to replicate “home” wherever we go. (Apps for this can be downloaded onto your cell phone as well.)

Blue light is another simple solution. Simple but not easy, as blue light is everywhere. Blue light stimulates the brain and tricks it into thinking that it’s still day. This subsequently suppresses the release of the sleep hormone melatonin, which is supposed to be released at night, or bedtime. Simple solution here: Just avoid blue light at night, at least one or two hours before bed, so your body can start releasing melatonin to begin “feeling sleepy.”  Not easy though, as our culture is addicted to TV, computers, and cell phones—all sources of blue light. Try reading instead–of course, not on a tablet with blue light. Or get blue-light-blocking glasses if you must be on a device until the very last minute.

Exercise and Nutrition. The only real effective way to eliminate cortisol from the body is to burn it off with exercise. Cortisol suppresses melatonin, stimulates the brain, causes muscle tension and even heightens anxiety. All of these inhibit sleep. A simple solution (but not necessarily easy): Just 10 minutes of vigorous exercise burns off cortisol while simultaneously releasing the three feel-good neurotransmitters–dopamine, serotonin, and norepinephrine. These feel-good chemicals ease pain and anxiety, which will also help you sleep. Try to exercise at least once a day, firefighter, and watch the impact it has on sleep. (But no vigorous exercise less than two hours before bed, as the heart rate spike can keep you awake.)

Water, too, helps eliminate stress hormones. Drink lots of water, every day. And food helps with sleep too. Sources of melatonin can be found in foods, the best source being tart cherry juice. We buy it by the crate online. It’s delicious. A little glass before bed really helps. Light snacks at bedtime also help. Cheese or turkey or warm milk (good sources of tryptophan) with a few crackers (a little glucose to help you absorb the tryptophan) is a nice bedtime treat. But don’t make the mistake of overdoing those nightly snacks; a heavy meal will impede sleep, as your body must stay partially awake to digest it. Keep it light, keep it small; that’s the key.

Social Cues. One of the biggest factors in sleep deprivation for the firefighter is feeling compelled to stay awake after shift to either work a second job or be with the family. This is a mistake, firefighter, which is neither good for you or your family. Take naps if you’ve been up all night. The firefighter’s home should have a dark room where this can occur. And the firefighter family should be sensitive to this need for “catch-up” sleep and be flexible with plans if an all-nighter has occurred. If you want to grow old with your firefighters, make sure they get to take naps as needed!

Leadership required. In doing my research on this topic, I was horrified to learn that some fire chiefs actually still believe that if a firefighter is “paid for 24 hours of work then they should work for 24 hours” without any time to sleep!  This is insanity for all the reasons listed (impact on health but also impact on performance). Mental acuity declines drastically with lack of sleep, which puts all at risk, including the citizens.

Most fire departments have bunkrooms, and firefighters do get to go to bed at some point in the night. But my hat’s off to the departments that are starting to realize the importance of a “nap room” for firefighters to sleep as needed during the day! A document entitled, Operation Fight Fatigue Proposed Rest Policy Intervention Fire Stations, a study financed by Grants to Assist Firefighters (AFG) through The Department of Homeland Security, recommended firefighters should be encouraged to take a 2-3-hour rest break during each 24-hour shift. The optimum time for this break was said to be between the hours of 4 p.m. and 8 p.m., if operationally feasible. The 17 fire stations assigned to this intervention group were given 184 blackout panels, which were installed in 105 bunkroom windows with the hopes that these fire stations would provide a dark place where firefighters could get restorative sleep during the day. Take note, fire chiefs: If you’re trying to fill every spare minute with busy work, you’re inhibiting your crews’ chance to take naps. This is not a desk job. Firefighters must be physically able to do this very strenuous, dangerous work for many long years; if you’re refusing to let them rest during a 24-hour shift, you’re literally killing them.

Sleepin’ ain’t easy for the firefighter, but with some simple solutions, both at the firehouse and at home, I’m hoping the culture will change. View sleep as an enhancement that optimizes performance. It will make you a better firefighter and, most importantly, it may save your life.


 If you’re interested in my book, Challenges of the Firefighter Marriage, check it out HERE

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Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 33 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.

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