Why Sleep Deprivation Is a Serious Threat to Firefighters


Serving in the line of duty results in an abundance of health risks for firefighters, though perhaps none more silent or threatening than the constant onslaught of sleep deprivation.

David F. Peterson, a retired fire chief and current fire training coordinator of Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville, Wisc., has made it his mission to expose the ongoing dangers of sleep deprivation and establish guidelines to ensure firefighters are getting the quality rest they need.

Although the fire service’s line of work has become synonymous with a lack of rest, Peterson scoffs at that notion.

“To me, that’s a hollow acceptance,” Peterson said. “I think we can do much better.”

Typically, the human body goes through four to five cycles of sleep every night, with each cycle lasting roughly an hour and a half to two hours. Toward the end of each cycle, the body goes through rapid eye movement (REM), a crucial stage for repairing brain cells, DNA, and allows the brain to cleanse itself of waste that it produces during the day.

Over the years, however, this crucial stage of sleep has considerably shrunk for firefighters.

Peterson cites an exponential increase in 911 responses to an aging population as the primary reason for an elevation in call volume. “While I’m retired now, I can’t tell you how many calls I went on that were not emergencies,” recalled Peterson. “People lack the education of when to call 911 but also lack transportation so they use emergency services as a clinic-type service.”

The result of Peterson’s theory is an increased amount of calls and longer work hours, with many firefighters working 24 and, occasionally, 48-hour shifts.

Although it varies from person to person, most experts suggest that the human body needs seven to eight hours of uninterrupted sleep to allow the brain to rid itself of waste and repair DNA. Long-term damage from a lack of quality sleep can turn into chronic problems later in life, including an increased chance of diabetes, cardiovascular disease, and weight gain.

Although there is no conclusive data yet, Peterson points out a link between Alzheimer’s disease and lack of sleep. Sleep deprivation robs the brain of a crucial protein called amyloid beta, which results in a plaque buildup that’s similarly seen in cat scans of patients with Alzheimer’s.

Contrastingly, studies show that the short-term effects of REM-lacking sleep begin with a decline in cognitive skills.

“After 18 hours of no sleep, you’re operating on .05 percent alcohol level as far as cognitive ability and that goes up to .1 percent after 24 hours. After four to five days of no REM sleep, you start to develop psychosis.”

David F. Peterson, Retired Fire Chief

Fixing the issue long-term, Peterson suggests, begins at the core of the problem: shift times.

“Some departments change shifts at 6 a.m., but if you live out of town and have to drive two hours, you’re going to be up at 4 a.m. and into the day and up all night. If you shift change at 8 a.m. then you could get two more hours of sleep.”

Check Out Fire BlogsOne solution that Peterson recommends for the short-term is a sentiment that’s echoed by many experts: naps.

Some departments don’t allow their staff to nap, which Peterson argues is detrimental to getting quality rest. Darkened dormitories and a flexible napping schedule are critical first steps for departments when it comes to solving the issue of sleep deprivation.

Although change can take time, Peterson’s advice remains simple and sound: “In other words, try to catch your Z’s when you can.”

About David F. Peterson
David F. Peterson is a 35-year veteran of the fire service and a retired fire chief. He is currently an EMS and fire training coordinator for Blackhawk Technical College in Janesville, Wisc. He served as a Level A regional HAZMAT team coordinator and instructor for 20 years and holds a bachelor’s degree in fire service management from the University of Southern Illinois and a master’s degree in executive fire leadership from Grand Canyon University.

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