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Firefighting: Still A Dangerous Job, Despite Improvements

Fighting fires is a very dangerous occupation.  Injury and death can be the result of smoke inhalation, serious burns, falling beams and chemical poisoning, to name but a few of the risks that firefighters face every day. But it turns out that the majority of firefighter deaths are the result of heart attacks and traffic accidents.  And these causes may in turn be caused by sleep disorders, according to a recent study.

The study, which was published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine, found that firefighters with sleep disorders were more likely – almost twice as likely – to experience motor vehicle accidents, fall asleep while driving and suffer from cardiovascular disease or diabetes. They were far more likely to be clinically depressed or anxious.

Are sleep problems among firefighters the consequence of the type of work schedules typical among firefighters? They are frequently scheduled for 24 hour shifts, with 48 hours off after each shift worked.  Although it may be possible to rest or sleep during the 24 hour shifts, no firefighter plans on this. 

Another type of schedule that is required in some fire departments is the three or four day shifts. These are daytime shifts of 12 to 14 hour days, followed by three or four days of night shifts.  They then have three or four days off before beginning the cycle again.

Shift work of any kind is known to contribute to sleep problems, which the study referenced above showed are common among almost 40 percent of firefighters. However, injuries caused by the work itself still represent 40 percent of firefighter injuries and deaths.

Recent news stories show the kinds of on-the job faced by New York City firefighters.  Last month, seven firefighters were injured while battling a fire at a Brooklyn factory fire.  An unknown substance was burning inside a kiln within the factory and seven were transported to hospital because of possible exposure to and inhalation of toxic smoke and fumes.

Three Jersey City, New Jersey firefighters were injured last month while fighting a fire in a vacant building.  Two of them were treated for burns and a third suffered neck and back injuries after falling through a hole in the floor.

Possibly illustrating the results of the study described above, a Bronx firefighter was hospitalized after suffering respiratory arrest while fighting a fire in Morrisania last Friday.

Even though firefighting remains a very dangerous occupation, things appear to be getting better. The U.S. Fire Administration reported that firefighter deaths have fallen almost 20 percent since 2002.  This is attributable both to improve fire safety equipment and fewer fires. Injuries were also down, although by a smaller percentage – five percent. Whether this positive trend continues remains to be seen.