Research has shown that fatigue can impact situational awareness in disturbing ways. Some police officers think if they take a “safety nap” it will help. And in a small way, it may help. Any rest is better than no rest. However, a nap does not resolve systemic fatigue. Rest is a critical component to brain function and when there is not adequate rest or disrupted sleep cycles, the impact can be real and measurable.
Some scientists have described the behavior of research participants suffering from fatigue as displaying the same qualities as a person who is intoxicated. When you think about the critical nature of police officer decision making, fatigue can have catastrophic consequences.
The schedules of some police departments are not conducive to adequate rest. I remember working 12-hour shifts from 6 pm – 6 am and then having to be at traffic court by 9 am. Sometimes court would run from 9 am – 12 pm and then I would have to go home, try and get some sleep, and be back for my shift at 6 pm.
This schedule significantly impacted both my mood and my job performance. Other times, I would work 6 pm – 6 am and be informed from a supervisor that a day shifter had called in sick and they needed me to cover the shift until 10 am or noon. This would make for some long hours awake and, thinking back, it severely impacted situational awareness, my decision making, and thus, my safety.
There is a reason truck drivers and airplane pilots are required (by law) to get a certain number of hours of sleep between shifts. Yet, police officers have no such requirement. Police Officers are expected to make high-risk, split-second decisions that could possibly take someone’s life and we aren’t required to have a certain number of hours of sleep between shifts. I believe this is something we need to work on changing.
Police officers may believe if they feel physically rested, they are mentally rested. When the body rests, physically, the brain does not rest. In fact, the brain is surprisingly active while the body is resting, suggesting the body rests so the brain may have access to the glucose (energy) to do its heavy lifting. And what is the brain doing while you sleep? The research of neuroscientists tells us our brains are sorting through all the data from our previous waking period, cataloging the events into memory for future use. Hence, fatigue can not only impact short-term performance and memory, it can also impact long-term recall.
Got a perplexing problem? Sleeping on it really does help!
Police officers who work long hours should be provided with opportunities to rest their brains. It’s not a matter of being lazy as some uninformed people may suggest. It’s a matter of personal safety and quality of care to the citizens they serve. Ask yourself who you would want taking care of your community, a well-rested police officer or one that is mentally fatigued?
Sleep is very important in our lives. Think of the last time you didn’t get enough sleep. How did this affect you? Find some time in your busy schedule to wind down and get some rest. Try to avoid watching TV at night and instead read a book or listen to soft music before bedtime.
Remember, the consequences of fatigue impacts you as well as others around you.
- Discuss a time when your situational awareness and decision quality was impacted from being fatigued.
- Share some ideas about how to obtain adequate rest while working extended shifts.
- Share some tips for getting adequate rest when off-duty?
Drew W. Moldenhauer, M.S, has 15 years of Law Enforcement experience with two police organizations in Minnesota. Some of the titles he has held in his tenure are Active Shooter Instructor, Use of Force Instructor, Crisis Intervention Team (CIT) Instructor and Field Training Officer. He is currently a full-time licensed police officer that works part-time with the City of Osseo Police Department. He holds a Master’s Degree of Science in Public Safety Executive Leadership from St. Cloud State University. He is a Certified Master Instructor for Situational Awareness Matters and has a passion for training his clients on this very important subject.
Richard B. Gasaway, PhD, CSP is widely considered a trusted authority on human factors, situational awareness and the high-risk decision making processes used in high-stress, high consequence work environments. He served 33 years on the front lines as a firefighter, EMT-Paramedic, company officer, training officer, fire chief and emergency incident commander. His doctoral research included the study of cognitive neuroscience to understand how human factors flaw situational awareness and impact high-risk decision making. He is the founder and CEO for Situational Awareness Matters, a teaching and consulting organization located in Saint Paul, Minnesota. He can be reached at [email protected]