Station Design: The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation

June 26, 2018
Ray Holliday and Jennifer Bettiol share tips for station layout and design that can reduce the effects of sleep deprivation on firefighters.

A lot of discussions around firefighter health and safety focus on cancer prevention, but architects Ray Holliday and Principal Jennifer Bettiol say fire station design can have a positive and negative impact on sleep deprivation.

The two, from BRW Architects, presented "Station Design: The Dangers of Sleep Deprivation" at the 2018 Station Design Conference and their goal was to improve conditions for firefighters in current and future stations. 

The session started off with some startling statistics related to sleep deprivation for the general public, including data that 6,000 fatal vehicle crashes are caused by drowsy driving annually. Those with sleep deprivation have a 36 percent higher chance of colorectal cancer and a 50 percent increase in the risk of obesity. 

Holliday looked at several disasters that were tied to the issue, including the lack of sleep that lead to the Exxon Valdez tanker that crashed into a reef and spilled 258,000 gallons of crude oil. The worst nuclear disaster in the world, at the Chernobyl plant, was caused by engineers who worked 13 hours straight and were unaware of the changing conditions. 

Firefighters and sleep deprivation 

The research they showed indicated that 59 percent of firefighters report sleep deprivation and 37 percent of firefighters suffer symptoms of sleep disorders. The factors can lead to on-the-job injuries and deaths and increase the chances for poor long-term health.

In a graph, Holliday illustrated that moderate fatigue from the lack of sleep is similar to alcohol intoxication. 

Signs and symptoms of sleep deprivation include:

  • excessive daytime sleepiness
  • moodiness or irritability
  • difficulty learning new concepts
  • inability to concentrate or a "fuzzy" head   

The pair discussed the importance of sleep and how it's part of the natural process, which allows the body to repair and reset itself. 

At the station

When communities are building new fire stations, the traditional dorm room versus individual sleeping areas is a hot topic. 

Single bedrooms can give firefighters a positive sleep environment, including the removal of noise. If the station's alerting system is set up to allow zone dispatching, it can reduce the number of times a firefighter has to wake up when they are not required to respond. 

Bettiol recommended that sleeping spaces do not have televisions or computers because the blue lights they emit stimulate the body to stay awake. Also, discontinuing the use of computers and cell phones 90 minutes before going to sleep allows the body to transition and prepare for the sleep state.

The use of black-out shades in sleeping areas removes outside light and Bettiol recommended limited lighting in the sleeping areas of the station. 

The pair said the ability to incorporate as much natural light into fire station design as possible helps balance the body’s internal systems and make for a more pleasant environment. Natural light helps balance your hormones and increases productivity at peak times during the day.

When it comes to nighttime alerting of crews, the use of red lights is suggested because it has a lesser impact on the firefighter’s heart rate. Alerting systems that start off gentle and get louder also decease the strain on a waking firefighter. A trend that they are seeing is limited pathway lighting in the stations and decreasing the number of lights in the apparatus bay.

Fitness regimes lead to stress reduction and Bettiol said workout spaces are crucial for firefighters.

“Exercise areas help mitigate stress, burn extra energy and balance body functions,” she said, adding that evening workouts can help prepare a firefighter for a good night’s sleep, barring any responses.

The day room is another part of the sleep deprivation plan, allowing firefighters to be comfortable and relax during downtime, and it also helps reduce stress. 

Tips for sleep 

Bettiol and Holliday shared a number of tips to help prepare firefighters for improved sleep:

  • Setting a curfew for the use of electronics 
  • Setting a curfew for eating or drinking caffeine
  • Reduce the exercise and training periods as bedtime nears

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