UT study tracks sleep patterns of Cedar Park firefighters

FILE - Cedar Park Fire Department (KXAN File Photo)
FILE - Cedar Park Fire Department (KXAN File Photo)

CEDAR PARK, Texas (KXAN) — When a fire station’s alarm sounds, every second counts. A new study suggests sleep disorders are prevalent among firefighters and are independent risk factors for the top two causes of death in the line of service.

The study published in the Journal of Clinical Sleep Medicine found 37 percent of the nearly 7,000 participating firefighters screened positive for sleep disorders. Among the disorders are sleep apnea, insomnia, shift work disorder and restless leg syndrome. Of those who screened positive for a sleep disorder, more than 80 percent were not diagnosed or untreated.

The Cedar Park Fire Department has been working with the University of Texas on a study of their own.

When a call comes in overnight, it takes Cedar Park firefighter Larry Mulrain a split second to get going. “Usually the first instance is, ‘Where am I again?’ But that shakes off pretty quickly and we get everything on and get out the door pretty quick.”

No matter the hour, Mulrain and his team get out from under the covers and respond to calls. That inconsistency carries over outside the station as well.

“So often we get up in the middle of the night, and it transfers over when we get home,” he said. “It shakes you out of your sleep patterns.”

Those sleep patterns are being analyzed in a study with the University of Texas. Cedar Park firefighters have been sharing their habits with researchers for about two years, which initially looked into health and wellness as a whole. But one thing kept coming up.

“The firefighters actually brought up how sleep could be an issue that could affect their wellness and fitness,” said Cedar Park Chief James Mallinger. “So, the study was expanded to include that.”

The study is ongoing, and for firefighters, so is the effort to adjust.

“You just adapt to it,” said Mulrain. “We know coming in what it’s going to be like.”

One alarming aspect of the national study is the link between sleep problems and firefighter deaths. More than 60 percent of firefighter deaths are caused by traffic accidents and heart attacks.

The study found firefighters with sleep disorders are twice as likely to get into a crash compared to their well-rested peers. They were also twice as likely to have cardiovascular disease or diabetes and more than three times as likely to report depression and anxiety.

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