American police officers do not lead healthy lives. The average cop's stress, fatigue and sedentary lifestyle causes him to die seven years earlier than his municipal office worker counterpart, according to a University of Buffalo study. The average police officer also has a high predisposition to obesity, depression, cancer and suicide. What plays a central role in police officers' health is fatigue -- something Bryan Vila has studied for 30 years. And now, he's looking to digital technology for solutions.
Vila was himself a police officer for 17 years. Today he is a professor at the Sleep and Performance Research Center and the Criminal Justice and Criminology department at Washington State University. And now, he's trying to get a mobile app on the market that can help police officers with fatigue.
“People have always characterized cops as being kind of dog-tired and raspy,” Vila said. “When you see them portrayed in a movie or in a book, or when you meet someone on the street, they are oftentimes that way."
But no one has ever thought about the impacts of that on their long term health and safety, or how they do their job, Vila said, adding that police overwork themselves, which is not only bad for their own health, but it also affects the health and safety of the general public.
Together with Jo Strang of the American Short Line & Regional Railroad Association; Gregory Godbout, a presidential innovation fellow at the White House Office of Science and Technology Policy; and Fatigue Science, a company that provides fatigue measurement technology; Vila wants to get an app dedicated to fighting cop fatigue in the field so police can work safer and healthier.
The app, called BeSharp, uses an algorithm to draw on decades of research, helping users to solve one of the biggest problems when it comes to fatigue: identifying it.
The difficult thing about fatigue, Vila said, is that although it has a big impact on performance, it’s very hard to measure or diagnose.
“People are lousy judges of their own fatigue impairment,” he said, contrasting fatigue with alcohol intoxication, which is much easier for a person to recognize. “Fatigue doesn’t affect you that same way. By the time you notice, ‘Boy I’m really tired, I better be careful,’ you’re already seriously impaired. You shouldn’t be driving, for example."
There's a lag effect with fatigue, he said, and it affects the part of the brain that would alert a person that he or she needs to be more prudent.
The BeSharp app attempts to fill in that recognition gap. “We have algorithms for estimating how tired you’re likely to be based on how long you’ve been awake, how much sleep you’ve had in the preceding days and what time of day it is,” he explained. The app also takes data from a wrist actigraph made by Fatigue Science that can identify when the wearer is sleeping or active.
Based on that data, the user will receive alerts throughout his shifts. When a user reaches 90 percent capacity, for instance, he will receive an alert telling him to what degree his cognitive ability, hand-eye coordination, and reaction time have been impaired. When a user’s reaction time has been reduced by 80 percent, it’s time to call for relief.
Fatigue in law enforcement is a complex issue that comes from several different sources, Vila said. The profession of policing in America is rooted in an era when doctors thought smoking was healthy and no one knew anything about the circadian rhythm or the importance of getting enough rest. Police officers were viewed like soldiers when it came to scheduling – they were tools to be used as the city needed. Police officers today often loathe to reduce their own hours because that would mean less overtime pay.
Vila speaks to groups of police officers on the effects of fatigue on health, and at those meetings he conducts hand-raising surveys in which he asks questions like “How many of you have worked 24 hours straight?” or “How many of you have fallen asleep at the wheel of your vehicle or have had to take a nap because you were too tired to drive?”
With every question, he said, every hand in the room goes up. There are more scientific studies that support Vila’s impromptu surveys – it’s something that’s been around for decades. And alongside efforts to get policies changed around scheduling and funding, Vila said he would also like to see police using the BeSharp app.
The app has undergone initial functionality testing, but has not yet been tested in the field. In about six months, Vila said he expects to make the app available.
Colin wrote for Government Technology from 2010 through most of 2016.