Performance under fatigue: Lessons from the military

Staying awake isn’t the only goal of fatigue management – being tired is dangerous for everyone


Editor's note: Uniforms and armored vehicles aside, U.S. law enforcement has much it can learn from military-level training and tactics that could transform operations from a leadership, organizational, and officer safety standpoint. This series, "Military methodologies: Organizational and leadership lessons for LE," looks at what lessons law enforcement should take from the military experience.

We’ve all been there. Double shifts, investigations that can’t wait, disasters that overwhelm, even that second or third off-duty job that finally catches up with us. More coffee, stamp your feet, keep moving, just stay awake.

Army National Guard Soldiers catch a few minutes of sleep on board a C-17 Globemaster. (Photo/Health.mil)
Army National Guard Soldiers catch a few minutes of sleep on board a C-17 Globemaster. (Photo/Health.mil)

But just being awake doesn’t mean we’re winning over our body’s limits. The danger of falling asleep at the wheel isn’t the only problem with fatigue and sleep deprivation. Our alertness, movement, strength, memory, reaction time and perception all diminish as our body begins the work of shutting down to fight for rest.

America’s military fighting forces have faced exhausting operations for centuries. When battles were for survival of troop attrition – who had the most men standing at the end – pushing soldiers beyond their human capacity was a risk worth taking to keep bodies moving and fighting. Today’s battles are won by smaller teams with highly skilled operators of technology rather than waves of infantry. Individual performance is important, and loss of a warrior even more damaging to the mission.

While much is written about sleep deprivation effects, management of personnel under the reality of long shifts goes beyond taking a break. Here are some fatigue management ideas borrowed from a variety of sources used by our military brethren:

Self-assessment is weak

Supervisors and peers must monitor officers for effects of fatigue. Safety violations and bad decisions are some of the consequences of fatigue, not merely yawns and red eyes. Microsleeps can occur without the individual’s awareness, leading to missed communications and accidents. Personality changes and lowered social awareness can reduce team cohesion. Leaders may be tempted to be the example of invincibility, but leading can be taxing whether on the front lines or not, and poor operational choices can have momentous impact. Pre-assignment fatigue briefing, similar to stress briefings, can raise peer awareness and reduce unproductive work under exhaustion.

Fatigue policy

First responders will inevitably face extended operations when public safety is at risk from man-made or natural occurring emergencies. Agency policy must exist to anticipate operations under long-term stress, generally defined as those where individuals are awake and on assignment for 24 hours or more. Having a policy that only punishes falling asleep on duty without anticipating human capacity during extreme conditions does little to enhance the mission.

  • Coordinate with other government and non-government response entities to establish respite locations.
  • List signs of dangerous fatigue for peers and supervisors to monitor. Make adjustments for the exertion of wearing tactical gear.
  • Develop emergency operations schedules, as well as mutual aid agreements, to ensure that untenable working hours are avoided during prolonged operations.

Using technology

There are products available that monitor physical performance, capacity and sleep patterns. Using these instruments to watch for physiological markers of extreme fatigue can help prevent the health and performance problems associated with the body’s fight for relief.

Prevention

Dealing with fatigue is an important part of a person – and an agency’s – overall fitness plan. Obviously, exercise that improves endurance, avoidance of alcohol, good nutrition and healthful sleep will all increase an officer’s capacity to deal with unusual physical strains. In addition, drills and training can decrease the likelihood of equipment and weapons systems errors under the stress of fatigue. Officers’ use of extreme gear most often happens under extreme operations where cognition and reaction time are slowed by weariness. Annual training on gas masks or tear gas launchers may not be enough to guarantee flawless operation after a 12-hour shift on a riot perimeter.

Further research

Leaders have a lot of research to examine when it comes to human performance. As we learn more about sleep, rest, stress and cognition, policy and practice must cede to the realities of human limitations. Our police officers will always continue to rise to the demands of extremes to protect others and their colleagues. They deserve the best understanding of performing under stress that we can have in order to preserve their bodily integrity and the integrity of their mission.

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