John’s 32 years of experience in law enforcement coupled with his human resource and organizational leadership designations make him a perfect subject matter expert when it comes to police fatigue. John led pivotal cultural changes within the Delaware State Police in areas such as fatigue management, special or secondary employment, and staffing and resource allocation.
If you’ve been keeping up with my “Mitigating Police Fatigue” series (see part 1 here and part 2 here), you’ll remember that I discussed how police officers at all levels of the organization resist the reality of sleep deprivation. Here’s a quick recap:
- Fatigue is deeply embedded in the law enforcement culture- we think that being fatigued is normal and required for police work
- Being sleep deprived can be the equivalent of being impaired from alcohol. We don’t let officers work impaired, why would we let them work sleep deprived?
- The effects of fatigued officers can be tragic, including falling asleep at the wheel, and can lead to major health issues
- Shift work, mandatory overtime, and secondary employment are the main culprits of fatigue.
Once you’ve recognized that officer fatigue is an issue and is important to address, your next step is to fix it.
Where Do We Start?
How do we shift the culture from acceptance, tolerance, and encouragement?
With strong policy, education, and health screening.
A strong policy is the core of any successful fatigue management plan. Education is equally important as is health screening- take a look at “Part Two: How Fatigue Impacts Performance” for an overview.
A true fatigue management policy is much more than a policy that just limits or regulates overtime. It makes sense that a fatigue policy would include management of work hours, time off, and overtime hours. It should also have a mitigation clause that addresses when the police department fatigues their employees. The mitigation clause will help avoid conflicting standards or rules. If you do not have a mitigation clause, your workforce will perceive fatigue management as an attempt to control or restrict their earning potential. Here was the problem we faced when I was at Delaware:
Early drafts of our policy set forth restrictions on number of continuous hours worked and required a minimum number of continuous hours off in any 24-hour period. The plan was coming together nicely, but there had to be consideration for the unpredictable reality of police work. There was a concern that without some exceptions to the rules, the policy would be overly restrictive and “handcuff” operations. Sound thinking, hence we created a list of exceptions to the rules such as critical incidents or court appearances and the list grew from there. As soon as we created exceptions, we realized that these exceptions were undermining the true intent of the policy; reduce or prevent fatigue. Officers couldn’t voluntarily violate the rest periods or maximum work hours, but management could order or mandate them to work longer or without proper rest. The contradiction of standards led to the creation of a fatigue recovery period provision guaranteeing time off for officers to rest if the department fatigued the employee. It was the right thing to do and just made sense. Getting everyone to agree wasn’t so simple-but that is a topic for the future.
A policy that only limits work hours tends to be viewed as overly restrictive. However, a policy that requires a minimum number of continuous hours off-duty focuses on the wellness of your officer, the agency, and the community.
Avoid using rules that reset at midnight as they create loopholes that your officers will find and exploit. When a policy states “…maximum hours in a day…” your officers can stop working at 23:45 hours and resume at 00:01 hours. Consider using rules that state “…in any calculable 24-hour period.” What that means is that each time an officer reports to work, goes to court, or begins a secondary assignment a new, and possibly overlapping, 24-hour monitoring period begins. Remember, 24/7 emergency services scheduling and operations seldom follow the traditional “per day” model.
However, in protracted critical incidents providing rest facilities for law enforcement officers where they could nap, out of sight of the public, could be an effective way to counteract the impact of fatigue.
When it comes to overcoming fatigue caused by sleep deprivation, the only true way to recover is with adequate sleep. When that is not possible, and the mission must continue, then consider how countermeasures can keep you safe. Researchers have studied countermeasures to fatigue and employed numerous strategies with airline pilots, truckers, and the military. One such study examined the impact of naps and found fatigue is most effectively managed temporarily with rest breaks that included naps that occur when the worker is fatigued.1 This presents a challenge if the employee cannot stop whatever they are doing and take a break at will. Truckers, for example, can pull over and take a break or nap when they feel fatigued. The problem with fatigue is that it impairs the cognitive function of the brain making recognition difficult; like an intoxicated person not realizing they are drunk .2 There is varying information about naps with a duration of 30 minutes or less. Truckers reported that 30-minute naps during the night did not help them but the same naps during the day did improve alertness and tiredness (as cited in Gillberg, Kecklund, & Akerstedt, 1996). Longer naps appear to be more effective as a fatigue countermeasure.
Sleeping or napping police officers, especially in public, could be a public relations disaster. However, in protracted critical incidents providing rest facilities for law enforcement officers where they could nap, out of sight of the public, could be an effective way to counteract the impact of fatigue. There a few progressive police agencies that have created quiet safe rooms at their stations for officers to rest or recover from fatigue. I applaud these agencies who have ignored the “paying cops to sleep” stigma and instituted an environment that is proactively looking to reduce the risks associated with fatigue.
Exercise is another countermeasure to fatigue. We have all seen travelers at rest stops getting out of automobiles and walking around to wake up. Researchers are saying that light physical activity only produces slight improvements in vigilance whereas rigorous exercise resulted in significant improvements.3 Rigorous exercise could provide an alternative for police officers that may be more effective than napping, especially for tactical units in perpetual “standby” at a critical incident. Keeping these officers’ muscles loose and ready for action may reduce injuries from sudden bursts of physical energy or adrenaline. Think of athletes seen on the sidelines of a sporting event riding a stationary bike to stay loose and ready for action.
Managing fatigue in law enforcement presents challenges unlike other high-risk industries. It is difficult to study police officers in controlled laboratory settings because of costs and negative impact of reducing community protection by having the officers off the street. Waggoner et al. (2012) stated, “It also is difficult to adequately replicate fatigue accumulated in the diverse, complex, high-risk, low-information, real-world operational settings such as police and similar occupational groups work”.4
Be part of the solution
As you reflect on the information presented in this blog series on Mitigating Police Fatigue, I ask that you consider the following question: Are you contributing to the problem or the solution? If you are not sure answer the following three questions:
- Do you mandate your cops to work OT?
- Do you allow them to work special duty, details, or moonlight?
- Do you allow them to work secondary employment?
If you answered “yes” to any of these questions, then you may be contributing to the problem. More importantly, your agency has culpability and owns the responsibility of knowing when you officers are working, for how long, and if adequate time was provided to recover from the effects of sleep deprivation or fatigue.
Shifting a culture is not easy, but it can be done!
We all know something needs to be done, but many have no idea where to begin. The first step is easy, start being part of the solution! Read more about the topic, consider a fatigue management program, and think about the health of your employees. As law enforcement leaders, we are not researchers, we are the practitioners. It is our job to put research and theory into action to change the culture of fatigue in law enforcement from acceptance, tolerance, and encouragement to reduction, management, and mitigation.
It starts with one cop, one department, one county, and one state at a time. One state police organization has made the shift and others are taking notice.
Together we can make a difference and save lives!
Stay tuned for John’s upcoming webinar discussing all three parts of the blog and key elements of a successful fatigue management policy.
About the Author
SHRM-SCP and Retired Captain
John retired in September 2017 from the Delaware State Police after thirty-two years at the rank of Captain serving his last four years as the Director of Human Resources. John has a Master’s Degree in Organizational Leadership, is a graduate of the FBI National Academy, and is a Senior Certified Human Resources Professional. John is currently a risk management consultant, trainer, law enforcement subject matter expert, and a certified assessor for the Commission on Accreditation for Law Enforcement Agencies (CALEA). John has also served as a volunteer firefighter for the past 15 years.