Mini Study: A Snapshot of the Sleep Patterns, Activity and Stress of Urban Firefighters at a Mid-Sized US City

This Mini Study offers a 2-week snapshot of sleep patterns, activity, and stress levels among a group of full-time firefighters over a two-week period, aimed at contributing to the ongoing research on the daily rigors of first responders.

Firefighters in this snapshot averaged close to 8 hours of sleep per night, with relatively high sleep quality scores, and exhibited low to moderate stress levels, despite the demanding nature of their profession.

Background and Study Design
The inspiration for studying the day-to-day stress levels of first responders came from a programming course for local law enforcement years ago, prior to the advent of modern wearable technology. While past research often relied on surveys, the current study utilized wearable health and fitness devices for data collection, promising less intrusive and potentially more accurate insights.

For this study, we partnered with a group of ten firefighters, all within the same firehouse, equipping them with wearable devices to monitor their sleep, activity, and stress. Similar to a previous study with police officers, the devices used for this initiative were capable of long battery life and were expected to be worn continuously to gather comprehensive data.

The study design involved participants wearing the devices for a familiarization period followed by two weeks of data collection, which was then uploaded to a central monitoring platform for analysis.

Results & Discussion
The collected data revealed an average nightly sleep duration of approximately 8 hours, with sleep scores indicating a high quality of sleep overall. Stress levels among the firefighters were moderate, with an average daily stress score well below the threshold that would suggest high stress, which is notable considering the potential for high-stress incidents in their line of work.

Comparatively, the Police Officers from a similar study averaged just over 7 hours of sleep per night, with moderate energy levels and surprisingly low-stress levels. The average sleep duration for the police officers was slightly less than that of the firefighters, but both groups managed to maintain sleep quality within a healthy range despite their demanding jobs.

Firefighters’ sleep duration ranged from 6 hours and 23 minutes to 7 hours and 54 minutes, with an average sleep score from the Garmin devices ranging from 57 to 78. Their average resting heart rate was around 50-68 bpm, suggesting a good recovery state. The average daily steps taken were between 6,842 and 11,731, indicating an active lifestyle. Stress levels were generally low, with the highest recorded daily stress at 60, and the average stress levels ranging from 23 to 43.

In contrast, the Police Officers had an average stress level below 50 for all officers, with the highest average being 44.6, showing that neither the firefighters nor the police officers were significantly stressed according to the metrics used.

One of the significant differences between fire and police work is the nature of the firefighter schedule. While police generally work 10-hour shifts and return home afterward, firefighters at this department work 24-hour shifts, with a crew changeover occurring at noon. We attempted to isolate the on-shift nights to determine how it affected sleep and recovery but found minimal variations between on-shift and off-shift sleep. In fact, it appeared that a majority of the firefighters seemingly slept better at the firehouse. In a discussion with the leader of this fire station, he mentioned it was a fairly slow period in terms of call volume (especially overnight calls), and thus the data collection didn’t capture the effects of a frequent call-out night.

Next Steps/Lessons Learned
One key takeaway from this study is the importance of voluntary participation to ensure consistent data collection. Future iterations of this study should consider incorporating a control group to benchmark the stress and recovery levels against those of non-tactical professionals. Additionally, ensuring continuity in communication, even amidst staffing changes, is crucial for the success of such longitudinal studies.

Similar to the Police Officers study, this study with firefighters reaffirms the potential of wearable technology in tracking the health and wellness of first responders. It opens avenues for further research, including comparisons with other tactical groups such as military and rescue personnel, and the incorporation of civilian control groups for a more rounded understanding of stress and recovery dynamics in high-stress professions.

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