The 'F' word in public safety
How many tragedies in public safety are assigned a proximate cause, when the real problem lying in wait is a grossly fatigued employee?
Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.
Gordon Graham here and hello again! We’re in the middle of a discussion about internal negligent conduct – or, when good people make honest mistakes.
More specifically, we’re exploring why public safety personnel make mistakes on high-frequency, high-risk events. When something goes wrong, there are five root causes that keep popping up. They are:
- Risk homeostasis
In the last article, I addressed complacency, so now we’re on to fatigue.
But before I get there, let me go on another digression. A few articles back, I shared that for 40 years, I have been so fortunate to give talks to cops, firefighters and other personnel from high-risk professions. For most of these years, I have been reading class evaluations re: my work. In fact, I recently finished up reviewing some evaluations from a program I delivered in Northern California.
In that article a few months back, I explained that while most of the evaluations say nice things, when I do get negative comments, they fit into three categories (presented here in order of frequency):
- “He did not give us enough breaks.” This is true – I get going and sometimes I forget the time.
- “I found some of the things he said very offensive.” This may also be true. What is funny to most may be offensive to some – and for that I apologize.
- “He is a very negative person – and we need more positive speakers.” This is the complaint that bothers me the most. If I come across as being negative, you are not listening.
I am very high on American public safety. The vast majority of things the people in public safety do, they do right.
My problem is that when things do not go right, there are significant consequences. When things don’t go right, people (including our people) get hurt or killed. When things don’t go right, we are embarrassed and lose the public’s trust. When things don’t go right, we get sued and indicted. Each of these falls into my definition of “tragedy.”
When we get involved in tragedies, we call our lawyers. They are helpful, but they address these events after they occur. The entire purpose of these articles presented by Lexipol is that fixing things after they occur is not the optimum solution. Rather, what can we do up front to prevent these problems from occurring?
The answer is, quite a bit – if we successfully address the “problems lying in wait” that will ultimately lead to some tragedy.
And that leads me to the “F” word – and the dirty little secret in public safety today: fatigue!
The proximate cause of tragedy
Let me start with this thought. I wonder how many tragedies in American law enforcement, the fire service and corrections are assigned a “proximate” cause of “X,” when the real problem lying in wait is a grossly fatigued employee. This is not limited to the uniformed ranks, but I worry about CSIs, dispatchers, jail personnel, homicide cops, EMT/paramedics, firefighters – and of course, the backbone of American law enforcement – motorcycle cops.
Here is the bottom line. If you are not getting sufficient sleep, you are suffering from fatigue. While this is not my area of expertise, I know people who know this stuff inside and out. Fatigue impacts decision-making. Fatigue impacts critical-thinking skills. Fatigue impacts judgment. Fatigue impacts coordination and balance. Fatigue impacts your length of life!
Now here is the tough question: Are you tired? In my live programs (particularly when I am addressing a single agency) I ask this question: “How many of you have fallen asleep at work?” The number of hands is a small percentage of the attendees – usually the old people who are bullet-proof and can say anything they want under the “three good years or one bad day” theory.
I thank those who had the guts to put their hands up in front of supervisors and managers and I ask a follow-up question: “How many of you have darn near killed yourself on the way home from work?” And my oh my, almost every hand goes up (except for the lieutenants who are still busy writing down the names of those who raised their hand after the first question).
Public safety personnel are a tired bunch. I learned this early on in my career when I was having problems staying awake on night shift. Try as I might, I was nodding off in the right front seat – and occasionally in the left front seat! It was then that I learned about the value of the “power nap” (although they did not call it that way back when).
While I was aware of the fatigue issue in law enforcement, it was never mentioned in training; supervisors also failed to address it. Fast-forward 40-plus years and fatigue is still a problem – and in most agencies it is still not being addressed.
The guru on fatigue in public safety is Dr. Bryan Vila. I met this fellow way back in the 70s when he was Deputy Sheriff Bryan Vila with the Los Angeles Sheriff’s Office. We were both going to school in our “spare” time; he was studying something called evolutionary ecology. Bryan ended up with his PhD and ultimately started a program at Washington State University Spokane to study sleep deprivation issues in police work.
About a decade ago, Dr. Vila wrote a book about “tired cops” – he called it Tired Cops – and for me that was a wakeup call (no pun intended) on this issue. I bought a lot of copies and gave them to people who had control in their agencies and could do something about it. Dr. Vila retired at the end of 2016, but he turned over the reins of his institute to Dr. and Dr. James – Lois James and Stephen James – and what a great choice he made.
We are running out of words for this piece, so more on this next time around. Until then, thanks for your continued support and please work safely.
Timely takeaway. In 2017, Lexipol hosted a webinar with Dr. and Dr. James. While I was the moderator, I was clearly the “idiot” in the room – these two geniuses absolutely dazzled me with the breadth and depth of their knowledge of fatigue and its impact on law enforcement officers. I am begging you to watch this free webinar prior to our next visit together. I am confident you will pick up some valuable new information; while the webinar focuses on law enforcement, the lessons are applicable to all of public safety. You can watch the on-demand webinar here.
This article, originally published in May 2021, has been updated.