By Sgt. Betsy Brantner Smith (Ret.)
PoliceOne Columnist & Calibre Press Instructor

As I’ve been traveling around the country lately, meeting and talking with so many of you, the conversation has consistently included this question: “What’s the best thing about retirement?” My answer is usually the same — other than the monthly pension check, I love finally getting enough sleep! Cops rarely get enough rest. In fact, we tend to pride ourselves on the ability to function on very little shuteye. But the hard truth is that fatigue can be fatal to a crime fighter. Physically, emotionally, tactically, and especially behind the wheel, fatigue can lead to disaster for the average cop.

Law enforcement has always been a notoriously exhausting job. Shift work, extra duty, call-ins, and court time don’t leave us with enough time to have a personal life, much less time to get some rest. Thanks to the lousy economy, we may now find ourselves taking on extra shifts due to layoffs and shortages, singularly performing multiple functions previously handled by multiple people, or needing to work side jobs or overtime details just to make ends meet.

“Fatigue” is different than ordinary tiredness. Fatigue is disruptive and generally affects all aspects of daily life. Extreme fatigue can leave you feeling weary, exhausted, and absolutely wiped-out, even after you finally get a “normal” night’s sleep. After all, you can’t “catch up on” or “bank” sleep, so what do you do when you’re working back to back double shifts with a DUI trial in between? Here are a few suggestions:

    • Back away from doughnuts! And the coffee, soda, and sugar-filled energy drinks. Avoid the temptation to fuel up with high-sugar, high-fat simple carbohydrates that will give you a temporary boost before sending you hard over the edge to crash. Caffeine will only work if you use it infrequently so try to avoid it as long as possible, and use it wisely.

    • Eat like a diabetic. I’m not kidding — eat like your life depends on it because it just might. Frequent, high-protein, low-carb meals will keep your blood sugar at reasonable, consistent level. Munch on a package of low fat lunch meat, a couple of string cheese sticks and a bag of baby carrots while you patrol. You’ll feel better physically and mentally (no guilt!) and the noise from the wrappers and the crunching will help keep you awake.

    • Stay hydrated. Make sure you have lots of water you can sip continuously while you’re on patrol. We tend to overlook the importance of fluids when we’re trying to performing at our peak, or simply stay alert. Once you feel thirsty, you’re already low on fluid intake so don’t let that happen to you. Sip, sip, sip during the entire shift and unless you’re sweating profusely, stick with water and avoid the sports drinks. They generally contain too much sugar to help keep you awake.

    • Move around. Get out of the car frequently, stretch, adjust your gunbelt, get the blood flowing to both your body and your brain. If you’re working inside (in dispatch, records, or investigations for example) take a walk around the building, splash some water on your face, or stand outside for a minute and enjoy the temperature change. And don’t forget that you’re going to need regular bathroom breaks because of all the water you are consuming.

    • Change it up in the car. Roll the windows down, switch radio stations, listen to the neighboring agency’s frequency for while (while also listening yours of course). Keep your brain constructively occupied and interested. Cruise by the scenes of past activity such as domestic disputes, bar fights and traffic crashes and imagine what you might do differently if you were responding to the same call tonight. Turn on talk radio or a different genre of music than you normally listen to; talk to yourself, recite the traffic statutes and the ten-codes out loud; anything out of your usual routine will help fight drowsiness.

    • Invite a ride along. This might be the perfect night to have one of the new dispatchers go on an officer ride along. I can hear you all groaning. It may not sound like such a great idea when you’re exhausted, but having someone you can talk to about the job, the jurisdiction, and even tell a few war stories to will make the shift go faster than you think, and will keep you on your toes.

    • Meet with your fellow officers. If you just cannot keep your eyes open another second, call a fellow crime fighter for a “meet.” Now that I’m retired, I can freely admit that I’ve spent more than a few times car-door-to-car-door with a fellow officer while one of us catnapped for a few minutes. “Power-napping” is actually a very effective way to fight exhaustion, just make sure one of you is wide awake and watching the other’s back.

    • If you are able to do so, talk to the boss. Many departments have policies (or union contracts) that prohibit an officer from working too many hours in a 24 hour period. If that’s not the case in your department, go to your supervisor and let them know that you are wiped out. A good sergeant will let an officer grab a nap in the break room rather than risk a crash or a fatal mistake on a call or a traffic stop. If you have a jerk for a boss, see all of the suggestions above. And if you’re a supervisor, pay attention and recognize when one of your own is a candidate for a one-car, fatigue related crash.

Wouldn’t it be great to work a predictable nine-to-five job with a 40-hour work week? Of course it wouldn’t! We’re sheepdogs, not dozing sheep oblivious to the danger that lurks everywhere. But even dogs need sleep; get some.

And when you don’t, do everything you can to fight fatigue. Stay safe.