Canadian Firefighter Magazine

Tools of the Trade: October 2018

By Sean Kingswell   

Features Hot Topics Leadership firefighter firefighting

Firefighters are exposed to myriad dangerous circumstances.

There are the obvious issues like heat, choking smoke, zero visibility and heavy lifting. Stress has also received a lot more attention lately, which is great.  

There are some things that are not quite as obvious or talked about, and one such example is sleep deprivation.

Firefighters are paid to do a lot of things and sleep is not one of them. We have access in most professional situations to a rack that may be used at night if all else is done. Anyone who has slept in a firehouse knows that we use the word sleep cautiously, as anticipating being startled awake creates less than an ideal sleeping environment.  

Within minutes, we can go from being asleep to being, not only awake, but in a life-threatening situation.   


With a certification in Sleep Science Coaching, I feel there are a few things firefighters should embrace when it comes to sleep.  

First, sleep needs some form of priority. Sleep is an active process and this point is the most important of all. Our body and brain recover and repair during sleep. Our bodies recover in the deep stages of non-REM-sleep and our brains in REM-sleep.  

Dreams, in many ways, are our brain processing many life experiences and emotions. Sleep is the absolute best practice available for recovery from exercise. Keep in mind that our body likely does not know the difference between a gym workout or a fire ground workout.  

Sleep and stress are married. When one is bad, the other usually follows. So, if we are sleep-deprived we are generally more stressed and when we are more stressed we generally do not sleep as well. This is a vicious cycle.  

Sleep deprivation obviously leads to fatigue, but it also affects our circulatory system, reaction time, immune and digestive system and cognition. Sleep directly impacts performance in life, a gym setting or the fire ground.  

We live in a coffee and soda culture and too much caffeine has a negative impact on sleep. Assuming a typical evening bedtime, noon is generally the cut-off for caffeine due to its half-life. In particular, caffeine can disrupt the first half of your night’s sleep. Alcohol, on the other hand, typically has a negative effect on the second half.  

Managing your caffeine is one example of a list of things that are included in sleep hygiene, which are the practices we can partake in to try to improve our sleep.  

First and foremost, if you think you may have a legitimate sleep condition such as sleep apnea or insomnia definitely make the effort to see a sleep expert or sleep clinic. When you are sleeping at home make sure you create conditions that work for you and help you sleep.

Regular sleep hours on off-days can help, as can a comfortable temperature and adequate darkness.  

Screen time before bed will rarely improve sleep, as the light from screens in some ways tells our brain that it is daytime. Speaking of daytime, getting out into the light during the day actually helps us manage our circadian rhythms.  

Exercise definitely helps us sleep. That being said, exercise needs to be properly timed to accomplish that. Exercising too close to bedtime can have a negative effect on our ability to sleep due to the body’s response to exercise.   

If you are having trouble sleeping, do not have a clock to constantly look at. Also, if you have tried for some time to fall asleep and have not been able to, get up or partially up, and give it a little time to start over. This could be a time to try reading, as it can often help with sleep.   

Sleep procrastination is a real thing. That’s when you’re tired but don’t go to bed. Find your way there. The extra hour of sleep is likely more productive than an extra hour of television.   

It can be good to talk to neighbours if you are going to bed after a shift. Hopefully, they will be co-operative and try to help by controlling the volume of their activities.

Talking to family about sleep deprivation that firefighters experience can also be helpful. This can help them understand the importance of sleep as well as take steps to try to aid you.

Napping can be a good strategy, but not too short or too long. If we hit the wrong part of the sleep cycle to wake up in we can feel quite groggy.

If you’ve had a tiring night and are driving home after work be careful, as being awake for 24 hours can have very serious effects on a person. Wear sunglasses on the drive home if it is daytime. If you are planning to go to bed, be sure to remove that light source from your eyes and hence your brain.  

Make sleep an active part of your wellness when you are on your off days. Your body, brain and performance will thank you.

Sean Kingswell is an experienced professional firefighter, personal trainer, fitness coach and the creator of the FIRESAFECADETS program. Contact Sean at

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