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You miss 100% of the naps you don’t take.

Updated: Jun 10, 2023

It is a pretty non-stop world isn’t it? According to studies, first responders are among the world’s most sleep-deprived professionals just due to the nature of their work. Have you ever considered how important sleep is?

Now place those same responders in a community that has just suffered a major disaster. It is all-hands-on-deck and while after the first 20 hours, everyone wants sleep, nobody dares to say anything out loud! We search for a corner where we can lean up against a stack of water bottles and try to catch a few seconds of sweet sleep.

Of course, moments after we drift off, somebody needs that water so we move to another location, then another and finally end up under a table or in the front seat with our head against the steering wheel.

As sleep deprivation can lead to and exacerbate addiction and other serious health concerns, learning how to make sleep more efficient should be a priority, especially in the immediate post-disaster hours and days.

Did you know firefighters, paramedics, police officers, and other first responders are highly susceptible to sleep disorders, including sleep apnea, insomnia, and work shift disorder? Yep! And that is because of normal shifts and normal stress! Imagine what the disaster environment is doing to our responders.

I know about this first-hand and yes, a lot of it is self-inflicted. We go for years living on the edge, bouncing from high to low adrenaline levels, sleeping with one ear open waiting for the next call. Responder ego shows itself as we boast that we can outlast each other despite feeling the effects of this run-a-way train more and more.

As we develop sleep disorders, they go unnoticed until suddenly we are seeking treatment for anxiety, cardiovascular health issues, or diabetes.

All of this got too real for me this past week. A simple visit to the doctor’s office suddenly became one of the worst events of my life. Kidneys. Sleep disorder. Diabetes. Blood pressure. Arthritis. I was overwhelmed with a rush of memories of all those nights without sleep, the nights sleeping wet or cold (or both), the hours spent snoring into a duffel bag and the hundreds of times I woke as I fell off of a poorly designed cot.

According to an old 2015 study from the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine (JCSM), over 35 percent of firefighters screened positive for a sleep disorder.

The combination of low-quality sleep, exposure to trauma, and long unusual hours wear down brain function to a critical point, threatening the lives of first responders globally, among the primary health risks that those with poor quality of sleep face, suicide poses the highest threat to survival.

It is crazy how important sleep is!

There are so many hidden threats in the post-disaster environment from infection to death but I truly believe that the most dangerous is that of lack of sleep.

Too often I see the result of counties, cities or agencies being over “budget-concious”. I cannot even remember the times I have been presented with a wonderful shelter set up for responders but found that there were $30 cots set up for us to sleep on.

On more than one occasion I have watched literally dozens of responders opt for the floor when presented with a small, narrow and uncomfortable cot.

As we discover more and more about the importance of sleep and the long-lasting effects of poor sleep on responders, it is time we stop playing around when it comes to making purchases in preparation for disasters.

Knowing you will need a shovel in the future, would you go to Dollar Tree and purchase a plastic sand shovel? Of course not! While perhaps unpalatable financially (since you don’t know exactly when you will ever use it), you head to Home Depot and buy the toughest shovel you can find. So why do we continually make poor choices when it comes to responder comfort? Is it because we expect that they expect a hard life so why not?

Three weeks after a tornado could be the three weeks a responder develops a sleep disorder, nerve impingement or becomes ill due to lack of sleep or poor sleep.

Sleep is rest and until we develop robots to do the job of America’s heroes, we need to start protecting them for the long haul.

By making the right choices in favor of rest and rehab, we are actually increasing the responder’s ability while under duress.

Lack of sleep has been proven to affect a responder’s ability to feel for others.

Sleep deprivation and emotional fatigue can hit anyone, but first responders and health-care workers are especially vulnerable due to the demands of the post-disaster environment. And that includes the recent pandemic- an excellent example of how little thought we put into planning for responder comfort.

Day after day we saw pictures of heroes sleeping in hallways and on pallets of masks or gloves.

The bottom line is that this is not a financial decision, it is a healthcare decision.

Yes, you can go and purchase the cheap cots and set them up in neat little rows inside of a gymnasium or shelter and call it “responder rehab and lodging”. Where the rubber meets the road in this argument is in the fact that when you don’t sleep, you can’t react as quickly, remember information, solve problems, make plans, multi-task or regulate and understand emotions as well as you could if you were well rested. We should probably decide what kind of responders we WANT out there.

FEMA defines a cot as a portable, lightweight structure that is easily assembled to accommodate a person in a supine position. Gee, thanks for that. I am picturing a surfboard. Anyone else see it? Ironing board? Pile of cardboard?

Instead of doing the minimum when planning for how we will accommodate our first responders during major events, why don’t we define what a bed looks like and should feel like in consideration of the life of the one lying in it? It was just a few months ago that I was down at Del Rio, Texas and visited with National Guardsmen that were sleeping sitting straight up in their Humvee. They told me they had been doing this for weeks! What was so sad was that their job was to accompany migrants to a shelter where there were nice cots!

We have gone to great lengths in this country to look after vulnerable populations without a thought to the highest-risk population we have in the wake of a major disaster and the issues that could result from our lack of insight and understanding.

It is not that these responding men and women WON'T work around the clock and sleep on the concrete. They will. It's how they are wired. The point is, they shouldn't have to when there are choices.

G'nite Ya'll!

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