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Sleep study focuses on Superior firefighters

The research is the result of a collaboration between the city and the University of Wisconsin-Superior.

Fire chief Scott Gordon wears a watch as he types on his keyboard
Fire Chief Scott Gordon wears a watch as he types on his keyboard at the Superior Fire Department headquarters on Tuesday, May 24, 2022. The watch keeps track of his sleep cycles for a study.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram
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SUPERIOR — Firefighters are in the middle of a sleep study being conducted by the University of Wisconsin-Superior’s Health and Human Performance Department. The goal of the study is to improve firefighter health.

Smart watches worn by Superior crew members 24 hours a day, seven days a week are gathering data about their heart rate, blood pressure and sleep patterns at home and on the job. A sleep tracker tool records deep and light sleep cycles, when subjects fall asleep and how many times they wake up during the night. Later, the data will be paired with information about the firefighters' dispatched calls.

“We’re trying to address the acute and chronic health of our first responders,” said Kim LeBard-Rankila, field work director with the Health and Human Performance Department.

The study was facilitated by an internship collaboration between the city and university that has been in place for over a decade.

“Not only does it serve our first responders, it’s a great professional education experience for our students. So it’s a win-win on both sides,” LeBard-Rankila said.

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For Fire Chief Scott Gordon, it’s a chance to collect data that could inform future choices, such as the possibility of moving to a selective dispatch system.

Sleep, interrupted

The Superior Fire Department responded to 4,200 calls last year. Each time a call comes in, day or night, the radio goes off and lights turn on at all three fire stations. Even when it’s a call that only requires one station to respond, all three get the message. And everybody perks up to answer it.

“There’s definitely some stigma involved if you’re the guy who sleeps through a call,” said Assistant Fire Chief Howard Huber. “I think it’s happened to me twice in my career, like, I remember both times very well.”

052722.s.st.SFDsleep4.jpg
Assistant Fire Chief Howard Huber turns on a white noise machine next to a bed at the Superior Fire Department headquarters Tuesday, May 24, 2022.
Jed Carlson / Superior Telegram

So they listen in.

“If it’s not in your area and it doesn’t sound like something that’s going to require two rigs, then you roll back over and try to go to sleep,” Huber said. “That’s why we’re doing a sleep study. To just get an idea how does that impact the people who don’t go on a call.”

A series of overnight calls can wreak havoc on sleep schedules, Gordon said.

“The worst thing is those, you know, that midnight call, that 3 a.m. call and that 5 a.m. call, because you never get into deep sleep and then you’re in the middle of your cycle, you come back to bed," Gordon said. "You know, people think that we get back from a call and we just go fall asleep. You don’t, because your blood pressure went up, your pulse went up. It takes so long to get back into sleep, let alone deep sleep."

He’s hoping that the data collected in the study will make the case for selective dispatch.

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“If we can have something that allows the other two stations to not to hear when engine one goes out and vice versa, then they can stay in deep sleep,” Gordon said.

Deep sleep is the level of sleep that our bodies need to battle illnesses and repair daily damage that has occurred, according to LeBard-Rankila.

“That’s our body’s cleaning time,” she said, likening it to mowing a lawn, washing windows or sweeping streets.

Research indicates a higher level of chronic illness and negative outcomes with poor sleep-health.

Sifting the data

After eight weeks of baseline data was collected, one factor was changed: A white noise machine was added to sleeping areas at the three fire stations. Firefighters can choose which water noise they want to listen to and what volume to play it at, but it’s on every night when they sleep.

“The white noise is designed to assist them to fall asleep quicker and enter into the REM sleep cycle quicker,” LeBard-Rankila said.

The decontamination trailer, donated by Enbridge, can be deployed within a seven-county area and even Duluth.

UWS senior Jordan Martin is collecting the results. They will be layered with information from Douglas County dispatch call records. Differences between sleep interruption for those who answered the call and those who didn’t, as well as the differences between sleep at home and on the job, will be analyzed.

The smart watches and white noise machines, purchased through a grant LeBard-Rankila applied for, will stay with the firefighters after the study ends.
“It’s just kind of like giving back to them because they give so much to our community,” she said. “And it’s, I mean, it’s something so tiny compared to what they do for us, but, you know, it’s just nice to give back.”

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UWS and the city have been partnering for more than 10 years to provide interns for the city’s employee wellness program, typically one each semester. One past initiative involved using coccyx pillows, or doughnut cushions, in squad cars to address lower-back, mid-back and shoulder pain for Superior police officers.

“I don’t think people are aware of how heavy those duty belts are that they carry. I mean, they can range anywhere from 30 to 45 pounds. OK, slap that around your hips and try and run after somebody, you know?” LeBard-Rankila said.

The test pillows worked like an exercise ball to improve officers’ posture and stabilize their core. Although they got positive results from using the cushions, the devices would often fall out of squad cars. A more permanent solution — an ergonomic seat cover device —would be cost prohibitive, but LeBard-Rankila said some officers continue to use the pillows.

The partnership with the city has been a learning experience for LeBard-Rankila.

“Seriously, Superior is really lucky to have the people working for them that they do,” she said.

They do a lot of work behind the scenes to keep the city safe and clean, things most people never see, she said, and they’ve been welcoming to the student interns.

“It’s really nice that our first responders are willing to take the time to help educate our young people,” LeBard-Rankila said. “It’s like civil engagement and career-building schools all tied up into one.”

MORE BY MARIA LOCKWOOD
Funded with federal COVID-19 relief dollars, the grants can be used for a variety of things, including classroom materials, staff training and safety improvements.

Maria Lockwood covers news in Douglas County, Wisconsin, for the Superior Telegram.
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