Can technology suck your brain dry?

Constant interruptions are okay if you’re the one causing them — not so much if you’re on the receiving end

By PoliceOne Staff 

Recently, there’s been an increase in discussion on the concept of situational awareness (SA) — or, more specifically, discussion around its evil twin, distraction. Often, the object of our distraction is some new techno-gizmo, and equally often, a person doing something really stupid.

What is situational awareness? Technically defined, SA is the perception of environmental elements within a volume of time and space, the comprehension of their meaning, and the projection of their status in the near future. Simply stated, it is what you are paying attention to and more importantly what you are not.

Constant interruptions are okay if you’re the one causing them — not so much if you’re on the receiving end.
Constant interruptions are okay if you’re the one causing them — not so much if you’re on the receiving end.

This Would NEVER Happen...
The officer was sitting at a stop light writing when his lieutenant — who had been out on a casual bike ride — pulled up and grabbed onto the door handle of the squad car. The Lt. looked into the car as the officer was working on his MDT. After about 30 seconds the Lt. banged on the window of the squad and the officer almost jumped out of his pants when he saw his Lt. sitting next to him. The moral of the story is the MDT had more mental suction power than a supercharged Binford 2000 shop vac, consuming all of the officer’s situational awareness.

In this situation the officer’s attention was strictly limited to the MDT — anything that could have been a threat around him was being ignored. As officers, we see motorists talking and texting on their cell phones. It is easy to see how others are distracted using these devices. But what about what cops? We are expected to be using all this great technology and do our jobs?

So... What Happened?
In the not so distant past, the only electronics a police officer had to be concerned with was a two-way radio and a couple of switches that controlled the siren and overhead lights. Today’s squad car comes close to looking like a NORAD control center, containing an onboard computer, dash cam, radar unit, multiple radios, sophisticated lighting and siren controls, car radio, plus the cell phone, PDA, and other electronics the officer carries on his or her person.

It’s been a gradual change. Let’s talk a walk down memory lane...

My bride and I took a weeklong cruise for our honeymoon. One of the most memorable aspects: no TV, no radio, no telephones, no newspaper, absolutely no contact with any of life’s realities. Awesome!
I remember suggesting that we might want to get one of those new fax machines in our office. “Just a passing fad,” the boss said, “they’ll be forgotten in a few months.”
My first cell phone was permanently mounted to the transmission hump in my car. It was as big as a brick. It required a corkscrew antenna on the window. I never had to worry about the battery running low. I could actually call people when I was driving to and fro. WOW!
Remember pagers? You’d hear ‘em go off in the silence of a church service or some other inappropriate spot. But, having one meant you must really be important. Right.
In a recent conversation, my wife and I figured out that we got our first high-speed internet connection at our home around 2000. How could we have ever lived without it?
The police department announced that AVL/GPS would be installed in all the patrol cars. The union threw a fit. Cops wanted lessons on how to disable it. “They’re not gonna watch my every move!” grumbled the old guys. Today, a lot of young coppers today don’t even carry a map with them. Without the GPS mapping in the car, they wouldn’t have a clue on to get to a whole bunch of calls.
The stroll through memory lane wouldn’t be complete without mentioning that seemingly innocuous little gadget that is so addictive that to some it should require treatment at the Betty Ford Clinic — the CrackBerry!
AT&T, Verizon, Sprint and others extol the virtues and absolute necessity of wireless internet (4G, no less) so that your pocket computer/phone/thingy can connect you to anyone, anywhere at the speed of light. And don’t forget that you can watch reruns of Rocky & Bullwinkle on demand, too! Hogwash.
To complete the circle, I actually received an email from a buddy who was on a weeklong cruise alone with his new bride. I refused to reply and just deleted it. HARRUMPH!

You didn’t even notice it happening, right? It’s been so gradual that it slipped by. Then, you realized something was askew. Like when you buy a new pair of pants and discover that you now require a 40” waist. Ouch!

The difference with situational awareness is that you may not realize you’ve lost it until your life or the life of another is in grave danger. Many of the technological devices being used today have the power to suck your mind from what it should be focused on, leaving you situationally unaware.

These devices SUCK, as in:


As in, these devices can kill you when you use them.

Assess and Practice
You’ve heard it a hundred times: Train the way you fight because you will fight the way you’ve trained. Right on. Technology gadgets have no guaranteed place in your life. Period. I’ve already been much happier that I can make a phone call than I am when I receive one. You, too? I suspect so.

Devise a plan that fits you. If you’re like me, you already have one started.

When I’m walking into church, I automatically set my pocket computer/phone/widget to vibrate.
When I go to the gym, the gym gear goes on. The cell phone comes off. It stays in the locker. I refuse to surrender my gym time to someone else’s beckoning call.
On the rare occasion that my wife responds positively to my amorous advances, you can bet your backside that the rest of the world can standby.

When working and finding the natives are at rest, texting, talking, or checking out Facebook can be a great diversion. However, when you’ve just notified dispatch that a vehicle refuses to stop and you have commenced a pursuit is not the time to dabble with the gadgetry.

Plan ahead of time. You already put the windows up at high speeds — or down in residential areas at night. Why not a similar plan for your cell, the computer, texting, etc. when driving gets stressful? Failing to plan is planning to fail. In our business, failure can result in the sounds of Amazing Grace, graveside.

When you are handling paper, remember this vital piece of information provided to us by the university clinicians: The human mind is inevitably more drawn into a computer screen that it is to identical information on a piece of paper.

Do I know why? Nope. But, just watch someone with a crossword puzzle from the newspaper and compare that to a youngster in front of a video game.

It can happen to you. Unless you decide otherwise.

When using this technical gear, plan on manual reminders from the outset. I train cops how to use a computer to record traffic crashes. A crash report (on paper) is about the most intricate document we create on the street. On a computer, it is far more mentally engulfing.

I tell my students: “From the first time that you use this program, identify points at which you will look up.”

No one will be there to remind you. If you start the first report with bad habits, you will continue with them, and sooner or later, that is going to get you hurt.

Assess and Reassess
This gear is changing faster than we can keep up.

In my former home state, an officer was recently killed in the line of duty while assisting a stalled motorist on the side of a busy freeway. His wife was out of town. His agency had trouble reaching her. She learned that she had become a widow when she read it on the Facebook page of an officer from a neighboring agency.

Stay tuned in. This stuff changes fast. Your life depends on you keeping pace with it.

I remember when Direct Distance Dialing was introduced by the one and only phone company in the United States. Before that, you could not make a long distance call without involving an operator.

As a very young child, my dad’s folks lived across the country. We called them once a month. My dad would call the long distance operator an hour ahead of time to set up the call. At the appointed time, our phone would ring and the operator would connect us.

AT&T just announced their terrestrial cell phone network will be backed up by satellite. So, if you are somewhere that there is no ground cell coverage, the phone will automatically switch to satellite service. Never more than a few seconds away.

Constant interruptions are okay if you’re the one causing them — not so much if you’re on the receiving end.

The distractions of technology are stealing our situational awareness. Five cops are dead already and one civilian is gone. I don’t want you to be next.

When it’s all said and done, it’s comes down to saving just ONE life.

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