The Less-Alarming Wake-Up
Turning Down Decibels Healthier for Firefighters
By Daniela Deane
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 10, 2008; Page B01
Jesus Escobedo is nodding off atop his Batman sheets when the little red lights flip on, casting a low light across his face. A woman’s voice informs him gently, almost seductively, that it’s time to get up. An alert is going out because an elderly nursing home patient is on the edge of death.
“Engine, medic, altered level of consciousness,” the voice tells the Arlington County firefighter as he jumps out of his bed at the Ballston firehouse. In a matter of minutes, Escobedo is dressed and hurtling down Carlin Springs Road toward the nursing home.
“One minute you’re sleeping, and the next minute you’re going 50 miles an hour,” said Escobedo, 27, sitting in the firetruck, sirens blaring, on his way to the 911 call last week. “And it can happen several times a night. It’s a lot better when the waking up part is a little bit nicer.”
A firefighter’s job can be very stressful, involving long shifts, emotionally draining work and a response time measured in seconds, often many times a night. To reduce the cumulative stress on their 315 firefighters and paramedics, Arlington was one of the first jurisdictions in the Washington region to install kinder, gentler wake-up calls in its 10 firehouses.
“Before we put this in, fluorescent lights would snap on overhead, lighting up the whole place, and there would be this loud, shrill, rapid-fire beeping,” said Capt. Randy Higgins, an Arlington firefighter for 24 years and Escobedo’s shift supervisor. “You’d go from sound asleep to your heart beating wildly in your throat several times a night.”
The consequences can be alarming.
Cardiac arrest — not fighting fires — is the leading cause of death among the estimated 300,000 full-time firefighters throughout the country, said Patrick Morrison of the International Association of Fire Fighters. Morrison, assistant in charge of education and training at the union, said that more than 50 firefighters die each year of heart attacks.
“The big thing we’re seeing is that loud, sudden sounds give them a huge adrenaline dump,” he said. “And the cumulative effect of that is contributing to early heart disease.”
Morrison said studies have shown that heart rates more than double when firefighters, even the youngest, most fit ones, are roused by loud sounds and lights. Arlington is at the forefront of a national trend toward less jarring wake-up calls at firehouses, he said.
“When you go through that surge of adrenaline as many times as we do, it’s worth making these kinds of investments in a system that diminishes that effect just a little bit,” Arlington Fire Chief James Schwartz said.
Arlington installed its system in 2004, just six months after the city of Manassas Park. Since then, Prince William and Stafford counties have opted for the system, which is sold by several vendors.
Other local fire departments, including Fairfax, want to make the switch as they upgrade their facilities or their budgets allow it.