Tuesday, December 6, 2016

What Firefighters Really Do All Day – Part 3

Two of the most common controversies that arise when discussing a firefighter’s job are eating and sleeping on duty. Few jobs allow people to be paid while shopping for groceries or catching a quick nap under their desk. But then again, few employers require their employees to be at work for 24 or 48 hours straight.

FDNY Engine 65
(Photo courtesy of Pixabay)
The whole point of having paid firefighters on duty 24/7 is to reduce response times to any emergency that arises.

Fires double in size (roughly) every minute they burn. The sooner firefighters arrive the sooner they can put out the fire, thus preventing deaths, minimizing injuries, and reducing property loss.

In EMS, the faster a patient receives treatment for a traumatic injury, cardiac problem, stroke, or other life-threatening emergency, the better chance he/she has of surviving the event. Statistics repeatedly prove that having staff on duty around the clock reduces response times and thus improves service to the community.

But when you work 24 (or 48) hours at a stretch, you still have to eat, right? Full-time American workers typically get a daily meal break and additional breaks during the workday. Why wouldn’t firefighters?

Occasionally you will see firefighters at the grocery store or picking up a meal at a fast-food place. Policies for shopping on duty vary by department (some allow it, some don’t), but many agencies view it as an opportunity to interact with citizens and provide positive public relations.

Then there's sleeping at the firehouse. Contrary to modern belief, sleep is not a luxury. It is a biological function as necessary to health and survival as food, water, and breathing. Loss of sleep leads to deterioration of cognition and motor skills, and subsequently decreased performance. Before you complain about firefighters “sleeping on the job,” ask yourself: How well could you perform your job after being awake for 24 hours straight? How sharp are your skills after working just 10, 12, or 16 hours? Do you want fatigued emergency responders trying to help your loved one through a medical crisis in the middle of the night?

The reality is that some nights you will get just that: Emergency responders who have been on the go all shift. Some shifts are busier than others. Some fire departments and individual fire stations are busier than others. It all depends on where you are.

Emergencies do not occur on any sort of schedule, so interrupted meals are common and there’s no guarantee of a full night’s sleep. On a subconscious level, firefighters are always on alert for that next call. Responding to fires or rescues that require a great deal of physical exertion takes firefighters from rest to peak performance with no warm-up.

Over time, the stresses associated with emergency response take a toll on mind and body, and many firefighters retire or leave the job carrying the burden of physical problems, mental health issues, disabilities, or cancer. How cushy is that?