Fatigue a recipe for disaster in law, intelligence, security

As the nation digested the tragic events of 9/11, one big question arose: how could this have happened in a country that has some of the best, most well-funded intelligence agencies in the world? Did the CIA and FBI sleep through all the tell-tale signs of an upcoming terrorist attack?

Bryan Vila, professor of criminal justice at Washington State University Spokane and a senior researcher associated with the university’s Sleep and Performance Research Center, suggests that the contrary might have been the problem. He points to the long work hours that are common in intelligence, law enforcement, and similar agencies as being the cause of restricted sleep, which in turn impairs analysts’ abilities to draw logical conclusions from information that is pulled together from many different sources.

“Everything we know about how the brain responds to sleep restriction indicates that those are the very skills that tend to be degraded the most by lack of sleep,” Vila said.

A 17-year veteran of law enforcement in local, national and international settings, Vila knows a thing or two about long hours and sleep loss. However, he hasn’t exactly suffered from it in the long run — he has made a successful career out of human performance issues related to crime control and is considered one of the nation’s foremost experts in that area.

The author of “Tired Cops: The Importance of Managing Police Fatigue” (Washington, D.C.: Police Executive Research Forum, 2000), Vila has made numerous presentations on fatigue issues in law enforcement over the last 25 years.

Earlier this month, he was one of the invited speakers at “Work, Stress, and Health 2006: Making a Difference in the Workplace,” the sixth international conference on occupational stress and health, held in Miami, Florida. Convened by the American Psychological Association in cooperation with several federal agencies, the conference addressed the constantly changing nature of work and its implications for the health, safety, and well-being of workers.

Vila’s presentation, “Consequences of Fatigue on Disaster Response and Counter-Terror Efforts,” was attended by a mixed audience that included first-responder teams from the Centers for Disease Control, public health officials, members of the intelligence community, occupational safety & health officers, police officials, and stress counselors, among others.

Using 9/11 and the catastrophic flooding after Hurricane Katrina as key examples, Vila discussed the impact fatigue can have on performance during both pre-event (e.g., intelligence analysis or storm prediction) and trans-event (e.g., crisis management or first response) activities. This sparked a lively discussion with the audience, whose responses confirmed Vila’s view that “very little is done to keep people from burning out.”

Mentioning events like the Challenger disaster, the Three-Mile Island nuclear accident, the Chernobyl disaster, and the Exxon Valdez oil spill—all of which have been determined to be fatigue-related—Vila argues that “we need to plan for and take into account these human factors when we’re trying to figure out how to do a better job of managing disasters and staving them off in the first place.”

In preparation for his lecture, he scoured dozens of government documents on 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina, searching for information on long work hours, fatigue, or sleep loss and how these might have affected the course of events. Although many of the problems described in these reports are human performance issues that could very well have been the result of fatigue or sleep loss, Vila found almost no mention of these factors.

The one mention he did find confirms his view of fatigue as a “cultural blind spot.” In testimony before congress, Cofer Black, a former CIA official, testified that CIA counterterrorism officers and analysts are “the finest Americans this country can produce. They are highly professional, smart, hard working, brave, and have an unbelievable work ethic—working 14- to 18-hour days, seven days a week, month after month.”

During the lecture, Vila proposed three approaches to managing fatigue risks that revolve around worker education, staffing, and scheduling. He stressed the importance of first-responders working in larger teams, with team members working in shifts. He also argued that disaster response plans should address the issue of work hours and how people can get enough rest in the course of a prolonged emergency. “And in the pre-event stage, we need to limit analysts’ work hours so that they’re not impaired by fatigue,” he said.

In some cases, the solution may be very simple. “A pair of earplugs and an eyeshade—a 75-cent investment—can help people working through a prolonged crisis take advantage of opportunities for naps and thus reduce their sleep deficits,” Vila said.