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Fatigue in public safety: An identifiable, manageable risk

Do not wait for a tragedy to recognize and act on the risks involve in tired personnel

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It starts with educating all your personnel on the dangers of fatigue and the impact it has on decision-making, critical-thinking skills, coordination and balance, vision, awareness, productivity, happiness, and – yes – lifespan.

AP Photo/John Minchillo

Gordon Graham here, continuing with some thoughts on the dangers of fatigue in public safety operations.

For those of you reading this piece who do not have a background in commercial vehicle enforcement, do a Google search on “how many hours can a big-rig driver operate.” Familiarize yourself with the 11-hour rule and the 14-hour rule and the 70-hour rule. These rules are too complex for me to summarize in this brief piece, but you will quickly figure out that the federal government is very concerned with how many hours a commercial vehicle driver can drive.

“Well Gordon, that’s a good thing – we don’t want truck drivers making complex decisions when they’re tired!”

I couldn’t agree more. But we give a cop a gun with bullets and put them on the street for 12 hours. We put a telecommunicator behind a console for 12 hours, and then a mandatory four more for overtime because we are shorthanded. We call out SWAT cops in the middle of the night who have already worked 12 hours that day. We expect firefighters to hit the ground running when the tones go off at 0200 even if it’s the fourth call of the shift and no one on the crew has slept. This is just stupid.

If you are really into this, go to the NTSB website and read some of the final reports on plane crashes and other transportation-related tragedies. Fatigue is always something the investigators consider early on and throughout the investigative process.

I am imploring you to recognize the risks involved with tired public safety personnel – and to do something about it! Granted, it won’t be easy. You are going to have to consider FLSA issues, circadian rhythms, overtime issues, call-out issues, commute issues and minimum staffing issues when you build your system to address fatigue in the workplace.

It starts with educating all your personnel on the dangers of fatigue and the impact it has on decision-making, critical-thinking skills, coordination and balance, vision, awareness, productivity, happiness, and – yes – lifespan. Without this awareness, some people will view your efforts to control hours worked as an attempt to reduce their pay. They need to know that you are doing this to better protect them.

Supervisors must constantly be on the lookout for tired personnel. I am very aware of how difficult this is, but if you have a paramedic who is a single mom taking care of a special-needs child, she may be tired by the time she gets to work. If you have a dispatcher taking care of an elderly parent suffering from dementia, the same may be true. If you have a supervisor with sleep apnea, he is likely suffering from fatigue every day on the job. If you have EMTs who like to hit the bar after work, this behavior could leave them tired behind the wheel.

You must also build these considerations into your internal auditing processes to make sure the systems you put in place are in fact being taken seriously. Please do not wait for a tragedy (death, injury, indictment, lawsuit) to learn that the rules regarding hours were not being taken seriously.

Incident investigation – did fatigue play a role?

And finally, when you do suffer some tragedy, please build this question into your post-incident investigation: Did fatigue play a role in this incident?

I guarantee you that when a big-rig driver runs off the road and hits and kills a cop, the investigators will take that big-rig driver’s life apart. They’ll perform an in-depth analysis of cell phone records, transponder records, video surveillance records and all the rest to find out how much sleep this driver had in the prior three days. Then the executive of the law enforcement agency will throw a news conference and tell the public the real cause of this tragedy was a grossly fatigued truck driver.

Contrast that post-incident investigation to the one prepared after one of our officers runs off the road at 0300 and hits a tree and ends up “fataling out.” Do we do the same level of analysis on sleep deprivation on this event, or do we say, “Bad things are just going to happen and there is nothing we can do about it”? I have heard that for too long and too often. Fatigue is an identifiable risk and thus is a manageable risk.

Well, that’s it for my thoughts on the “F” word. Remember the simple definition of risk management:

  1. Recognize
  2. Prioritize
  3. Mobilize

The mere fact that you are reading this sentence tells me you recognize the risk fatigue poses to your personnel. Now prioritize it! This is important stuff – life and death stuff. Now mobilize – act to do something to address this risk.

Read next: 5 evidence-based guidelines for fatigue management in EMS

Gordon Graham has been actively involved in law enforcement since 1973. He spent nearly 10 years as a very active motorcycle officer while also attending Cal State Long Beach to achieve his teaching credential, USC to do his graduate work in Safety and Systems Management with an emphasis on Risk Management, and Western State University to obtain his law degree. In 1982 he was promoted to sergeant and also admitted to the California State Bar and immediately opened his law offices in Los Angeles.