Sleep And EMS


When I was young, I read an article that said that humans sleep about 1/3 of their life. I found that disturbing because it was, well 1/3 of our life. Life is short enough, I figured, so I planned to sleep as little as possible, so as to miss as little as possible.

Which isn’t why I got into EMS, but as it turned out, a life in EMS often meant less than 8 hours of sleep per day. A lot less in some cases.

Sorta Big City EMS is odd among EMS systems for a lot of reasons, some good, some bad. Among other things employees generally work 40 scheduled hours, plus overtime. Overtime is the result of picking up extra shifts or getting “late trips”. Late trips are the bane of EMS. Even people who are overtime whores hate late trips. It has to be psychological because it makes no sense. Someone who eagerly takes an 8 hour overtime shift two or three times a week, gets intensely angry when he gets a call that takes  him past his scheduled quitting time.

I wasn’t immune from that either, and I have no rational explanation for why it happened.

Anyway, back to my main theme here.

In the early days of my career, the most senior EMTs on the job all worked the night shift. The night shift was 8 hours long, like most shifts. Guys came in at midnight and worked  until 8:00 AM. When I first started, it was pretty slow on most nights. Even though we had no official sleeping quarters, as long as someone answered the radio, we could “doze”. Some people managed to doze for four or five hours per night. We called it “Dozing for Dollars” because unlike most of the private services, we got paid to be there, not just when we were on calls.

There’s none of that any more, and wasn’t for much of my career. Since humans aren’t really evolved to be nocturnal creatures being up all night means that people who work nights are generally sleep deprived. Add to that late calls, the demands of family life, doing things during the day when “normal” people do normal things, and you can see how I got my wish.

Be careful what  you wish for.

There were times when I’d get 4 hours of sleep in 24 hours. If I worked overtime, that meant I was working a minimum of 16 hours, but it could be more if I got a dreaded late trip. Then, an hour to get home, another hour to eat and shower. So now we’re up to 19 hours. Sleep for four hours, get up, get dressed, drive back to work.

The older you get, the more tiring that sort of thing is. Over the years, it takes a toll in many ways. That might explain why a lot of the folks I worked with on the night shift had various ailments, lousy marriages, and were in general pretty grumpy. That extended to the nurses at the hospitals to which we transported patients. There was a certain lack of cheery compassion, even for the most ill of patients. They’d get good treatment, but it was definitely without a smile. Of course, the clientele weren’t exactly cordial either much of the time.

Sleep deprivation will do that to you.

Now that I’m retired, my body has adapted to be “normal”. Well, normal for me, I guess. I don’t worry about sleeping away 1/3 of my life and now I look forward to getting seven or eight hours of sleep in a row. That must be beneficial, because now when I see people I used to work with, many of them comment on how relaxed I look. I never noticed it, but I must often have been would up tighter than the proverbial two dollar wrist watch.

If you’re reading this and planning on a career in EMS, know that sleep will often be elusive and fleeting. No matter where you work, what kind of shift, rural or urban, you’ll often be short on sleep.

Oh, and don’t plan on getting out of work on time. Late trips always happen when you have something planned for after your shift. It’s just the nature of EMS.