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February 13, 2012
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Tim Dees Police Tech & Gear
with Tim Dees

Can technology identify fatigued officers?

Putting a number on one’s fatigue level identifies both the people who should have stayed in bed and the ones who would never get out of bed if they had the chance

The proportion of cops killed in on-duty traffic accidents declined last year, but the number is still disproportionate and excessive. Roughly half of these are single-vehicle accidents, so some of the contributing factors are a mix of evidence and speculation: speed too fast for conditions, no seatbelt use, driver inattention/distraction, and so on. Another probable factor is officer fatigue.

More than ten years ago, Brian Vila exposed one of policing’s “crazy aunts in the basement” in his book Tired Cops. I give this the “crazy aunt” label because this is an area where cops are their own worst enemies. Most the cops I know (including me) have at some time in their careers burned the candle at both ends, sacrificing sleep in favor of an overtime opportunity, the extra “pay job,” an enriched social life, or while pursuing their education. Sometimes their own zeal for the job comes back to bite them when DUI cases or a string of felony arrests go to trial during the day while the officer continues to work the night shift. There aren’t enough hours in the day to work a shift, attend to other business, and get adequate rest.

It wasn’t developed for law enforcement, but a new gadget for monitoring of truck drivers and heavy equipment operators may find its way into your patrol car. The SmartCap is a baseball cap equipped with electrode sensors and a solid state computer. The only visible part of the hardware is the computer module fixed to the underside of the brim. While the cap is worn, the electrodes pick up electrical activity in the brain and translate them into an electroencephalogram (EEG) trace. The computer/memory module sends this data wirelessly to a display in the cab of the vehicle or to a remote location, showing the operator’s fatigue level. If the operator’s alertness drops below a certain threshold, an alarm sounds, telling the operator to take a break.

Previous EEG technology required sensor electrodes to have close contact with the skin, usually via adhesive pads and a lot of wires. These new electrodes get all the data they need from no closer contact than the inside of the cap is likely to get.

Fatigue is affected by individual physiology and emotional state as well as sleep patterns. Healthy, fit people with a good outlook on life are going to be more resilient than a depressed person in poor condition, although either one is fooling himself with the “I’ll sleep when I’m dead” argument. Even an otherwise healthy person who tries to sleep for an adequate period may get insufficient rest if they have sleep apnea or consume alcohol or caffeine to excess.

The ability to quantify one’s level of fatigue is important for the workplace, both to identify the overtired workers and the slackers. Most cops are enthusiastic about their jobs, but we’ve all worked with people who will use any excuse to dodge performing even the most basic tasks. If all an officer needed to do was complain, “I’m too tired to work,” most agencies would have difficulty filling out the roster. Putting a number on one’s fatigue level identifies both the people who should have stayed in bed and the ones who would never get out of bed if they had the chance.

I doubt that this kind of monitoring will ever be common in the police workplace, but it does provide an opportunity to open a dialogue on mandating appropriate rest periods. Pilots and truck drivers are required to have minimal rest periods (even though many try or are pressured to skirt the regulations) between work assignments, because very bad things happen when they don’t. Tired cops don’t just wreck cars. They may make a bad call in a use-of-force situation or lose their temper with someone who is pushing their buttons — typically, the situation would be different with a well-rested officer. Agencies have to take into account the cost of dealing with the consequences of these situations versus the price of ensuring their employees have adequate rest.

This solution also requires some honesty and discipline from the individual officer. Police compensation varies widely across the country; some officers couldn’t pay for basic expenses on their salaries while others are working the extra job to finance the boat, motorcycle and snowmobile.

To borrow Brian Willis’ mantra, we need to consider What’s Important Now.

About the author

Tim Dees is a writer, editor, trainer, and former law enforcement officer. After 15 years as a police officer with the Reno Police Department and elsewhere in Northern Nevada, Tim taught criminal justice as a full-time professor and instructor at colleges in Wisconsin, West Virginia, Georgia, and Oregon.

He was also a regional training coordinator for the Oregon Dept. of Public Safety Standards & Training, providing in-service training to 65 criminal justice agencies in central and eastern Oregon.

Tim has written more than 300 articles for nearly every national law enforcement publication in the United States, and is the author of The Truth About Cops, published by Hyperink Press. In 2005, Tim became the first editor-in-chief for Officer.com, moving to the same position for LawOfficer.com at the beginning of 2008. He now writes on applications of technology in law enforcement from his home in SE Washington state.

Tim holds a bachelor’s degree in biological science from San José State University, a master’s degree in criminal justice from The University of Alabama, and the Certified Protection Professional credential from ASIS International. He serves on the executive board of the Public Safety Writers Association.

Dees can be reached at tim.dees@policeone.com.

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