Our ‘sleepless hero’ culture

Well, I did promise timely blogging of my opinion on current events, so with this topic rattling around in my brain, it seemed like a good start.

The recent bushfires across Australia have been horrific. While fire is a natural part of the bush’s life, it’s a fearsome beast when it comes close to our homes, our friends and our families. And when it does literally come breathing down our necks, our heroic firefighters don their gear and stare it in the face. The Queensland Rural Fire Service are true heroes in every sense of the word, especially the volunteers who don’t even get paid for such dangerous work.

Rightly so, even our Prime Minister chimed in with thanks, tweeting:


She hit the nail with ‘out there protecting us’ and ‘deserve our deepest thanks’.  But the ‘days on almost no sleep’ bit made me want to scream.

I accept that she was pointing out a fact and that nothing else was intended except for grateful recognition. What I struggle with though is that this highlights the ‘sleepless hero’ culture that we have. And by ‘we’, I’m wondering if I mean ‘the whole world’.

Is this what we expect of our heroes? That they will stand up and fight for us for days on end with almost no sleep? Do we expect them to have magical superpowers? Or do we just hope that they won’t get exhausted and step down, because it’s our property, our lives at stake? Do we place this same expectation on our doctors, our emergency room staff, our teachers and our parents. Undoubtedly, yes, we do. We have a culture where pushing through and completing the job is paramount and important and heroic ….. but on the other hand, we run road safety campaigns about the dangers of driver fatigue. Oh wait, maybe that’s only intended at long drives to holiday destinations and long haul truck drivers.

If that last paragraph seems a little harsh, let me rattle your cage even further by telling you that sometimes the workers themselves are the problem. Before I get shot down for criticising these heroes, I’ve heard people talk proudly about how long they’ve been on the job and how little sleep they’ve had. I know that managers have to fight to send people home when they want to stay. This isn’t always the case, but some of our heroes perpetuate the ‘sleepless hero’ trait as a valuable one. The emergency services themselves are the biggest advocates for fatigue management.  There’s a ‘safety first’ culture which constantly seeks to minimise the risk for the worker. They understand the impacts of fatigue on workers and how these safety risks increase when you are tired and how important it is that all of the workers go back home safely to their families. Fatigue management policies have a hard battle fighting against culture, but this is a battle that policy has to win.

Perhaps the media reports don’t look as good if we say ‘ 3 shifts worked to cover the day and everyone got a good rest’. Does that make them sound slack? Why do we wear a ‘lack of sleep’ badge so proudly? It speaks of sacrifice, of putting others first, of complete and utter selflessness. Of sainthood even.

Just stop it. The next time someone tells you they’ve had no sleep, tell them how stupid that is. Tell them they should be setting an example for their colleagues, for their staff, for their families, that sleep & rest matters because it keeps them safer, their colleagues safer and the other drivers on the road safer. Figure out what you can do to help – send your local volunteer fire bridage some ‘baked relief’ so they’ll at least have something nutrious in their tummies with no extra effort from them.

Let’s stop celebrating a lack of sleep. Our heroes deserve better than that. They deserve to know that we think rest is important to them and that we value them for looking after themselves too. Because if they don’t look after themselves, they can’t be there to help us.



One thought on “Our ‘sleepless hero’ culture

  1. Fatigue management for volunteer responders is a huge issue. Not only do many of them have a daytime job, they also respond to emergencies, many times after completing a day of work, so the fatigue monster is sneaking up on them.

    So here is a not unreasonable scenario… Mr or Ms Vollie works a ten hour day (It may be physical labour or sedentary), then heads home for an hour or so,is turned out to a call without dinner, works on the job for 4-5 hours, returns home, showers, eats, winds down as the adrenaline exits the system, goes to sleep and wakes up 4-5 hours later to go to work…
    (lets not even go into the other types of work profile as the protracted events just smash ya!)

    At what time does the Organisation (CFA/RFS/SES/EMS/StJA/etc etc etc) take responsibility for their “worker” and making sure they are fit for their paid employment? What are the impacts on the fatigued employee (of a business who graciously allows a responder to go from work) on the paid employment and what sort of liability (vicarious or otherwise) does the Emergency Service Organisation (ESO) have in the subsequent workplace?

    Fatigue kills and injures! So I wonder when the insurers are going to look at the costs of additional risks for vollies away from the ESO role as a result of their ESO roles…

    This comment has a lot of questions, many of which I have tried to address over the years, yet many aspects still remain in the too hard basket. The truth is, many ES workers (paid or volunteer) under-report issues of fatigue. They just want to do what they do best, and that is to respond and help people.

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