By Anne Gagliano
When others run away, firefighters go forward, providing reliable, efficient, and effective all-hazards response clearly seen throughout the country day after day, year after year. In the darkest hours of America’s most dramatic events, such as 9/11, Hurricane Katrina, Superstorm Sandy, civil unrest, shootings, and terrorist attacks throughout the land, firefighters are there. They face flooding, tornadoes, wildfires, and even massive mudslides in places like Oso, Washington. On our worst days, they give us comfort and hope and life, and they do this through the night, literally sleeping with “one eye open.” This schedule, this life, is a blessing to us all, providing service at a fraction of what it would cost the private sector to duplicate. Emergencies come at all hours; therefore, our responders must work all hours.
The 24-hour shift has many positive advantages not only for the community but for the firefighter as well. In the big city, it means less commuting–much less commuting—and this results in more time at home. It also provides an easier “transition” from home life to fire life. A day for all of us is 24 hours; it’s easier to stay in one mode for that 24 hours than it is to shift rapidly back and forth–easier for the firefighter and easier for the spouse. I enjoy my occasional evenings to myself.
Firefighting is a team occupation—one that cannot be accomplished alone. The 24-hour shift gives firefighters a unique opportunity to bond not only as a team but as a family. Families connect over routines such as planning and sharing meals and joking about nighttime rituals. And the family bond is sacred, as they will risk all for one another. When firefighters “live together,” they become as family with the deepest levels of devotion. This devotion makes firefighters safer and better at what they do.
The meals that firefighters share are typically fresh and hot and cost-effective, as most “home-made” meals are. This, too, is beneficial–beneficial and more fun. Night-shift only or day-shift only workers tend to eat fast junk foods, as they have no time for well-prepared meals, and they often eat alone. This type of eating can be expensive and unhealthy, as highly processed foods (or quick foods) are full of preservatives and lack nutrition. And, let’s face it, eating alone is not as pleasurable or relaxing as breaking bread with a friend.
My husband Mike and I have had the pleasure of living with the 24-hour shift for most of his firefighting career. We prefer it, hands down, to any other schedule. When Mike made captain, he was assigned to the Joint Training Facility for two years as the training officer. He had to work days, and he had to commute days—all week. He spent nearly four hours a day stuck in soul-stealing commuter traffic. We lost so much time together! We were relieved when this assignment ended and he went back to the 24-hour shift. He works longer chunks, but he’s home longer, too. We’ve had the privilege of having him around, and we, his family, have loved it.
The blessings of a 24-hour shift include cost-effective, around-the clock service to the community; tighter bonds with the crew; less time having to shift between worlds; and more precious, invaluable time at home. These are the pros, the major perks. But there is, however, a hefty cost for this preferred schedule—one that can be quite harmful to the firefighter’s health and relationships. The price to pay? Circadian rhythm disruption.
“Circa” is Latin for “around” and “dian” is Latin for day; circadian rhythm is the body’s internal “around the day,” 24-hour body clock. It is a major body rhythm with regular ups and downs that cause many systems in the body to be active at certain times and inactive at all other times. Usually, body systems are most active in the late afternoon or early evening; for example, the body’s ability to produce energy from food (metabolism) is highest between 4 p.m. and 6 p.m. The least body activity usually happens in the middle of the night when most people are sleeping, from between 4 a.m. and 6 a.m. Circadian rhythm affects how alert people feel. The ability to perform work is best when the rhythm is high and worst when it is low (when most people are sleeping). The rhythm prepares your body by releasing chemicals needed to be wakeful in the day and sleepy at night. Circadian rhythm disruption is when the body’s clock is thrown off from its normal patterns, which confuses body functions such as digestion and the wake/sleep cycle. This disruption can be moderate, as in jet lag, or it can be severe, as in being awakened in the night from bells and whistles, night after night, year after year in the career of a firefighter. It is for this reason that this topic is serious, and one that firefighter couples need to be aware of.
Chronic circadian rhythm disruption is much more than just “lack of sleep.” Those who experience it are 60 percent more likely to suffer from the following:
- Cardiovascular disease.
- Mood swings.
- Gastrointestinal problems.
- Motor vehicle accidents.
- Trouble controlling blood sugar levels for diabetics.
- Low testosterone levels/hormonal imbalances.
- More sensitivity to toxic exposures.
- Substance abuse.
- Chronic fatigue.
- Family problems and divorce.
The three primary synchronizing agents of circadian rhythm are light, social/physical activity cues, and melatonin. Of these three, light is the strongest. Light affects melatonin production, which is the chemical produced by the brain that causes sleepiness. This is why night work is so harmful, as darkness is tough to duplicate in the day, so catching up on sleep for the nightshift worker is always hard to do. Light simply means wakefulness to the human brain; it’s very difficult to sleep when any light is present. The central circadian rhythm pacemaker in humans is located in the suprachiasmatic nucleus (SCN), which regulates the timing of the release of melatonin from the pineal gland, which is supposed to begin about two hours before sleep. Light suppresses this secretion (and so does the stress hormone cortisol). Over time, an inadequacy of melatonin causes insomnia, or the inability to fall asleep naturally, and this can lead to substance abuse.
The SCN is also responsible for regulating many body functions that revolve around the 24-hour clock, including body temperature, heart rate, blood pressure, metabolism, bowel movements, and the release of hormones. When this clock is disrupted, all of these functions are interrupted, causing irregularities and imbalances. Testosterone is produced during REM sleep; without adequate sleep, testosterone levels drop (cortisol also suppresses testosterone). Low testosterone causes fatigue, moodiness, and a lessened libido, all of which can impact a relationship.
These are some of the potential hazards of the 24-hour shift and its impact on circadian rhythm. Let me stress the word potential; they are not absolutely guaranteed. We have options, firefighter couples, and if we choose to use them, our firefighters can be healthier and so can our relationships. In my next column, I will detail ways to help your firefighter reset the circadian rhythm and keep the disruption to a minimum, since the majority of us prefer the 24-hour schedule to any other.
Anne Gagliano has been married to Captain Mike Gagliano of the Seattle (WA) Fire Department for 30 years. She and her husband lecture together on building and maintaining a strong marriage.