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Columns : In My Sights

The Dawn

Sometimes it takes focusing on the light at the end of the tunnel to get through a night shift.

July 29, 2010  |  by Dave Smith - Also by this author


I have always thought of myself as a night person. I don't actually base that on how much I love nights as much as on how I hate mornings; so I guess I should call myself a "not a morning person" and leave it there. When I was a young crimefighter it didn't seem like such a big thing, but now it seems a lot more annoying than it did before.

I got in really late last night from doing a seminar and had to get up early to write this little missive. I am so annoyed at the morning that I want to vent about it.

As a rookie I found I could adapt to a shift change pretty quickly. Actually, it was made quite simple by the fact that, as the new kids, all we got was graveyard anyway. Fresh out of college, I was used to being up most of the night and the third shift in Tucson could be one great adventure after another. Fights here, alarms there, a chase over on that side, a prowler on this side, a wonderful time that seemed to end way too soon and suddenly it was morning and we were heading home...wow!

On the other hand, midnights can be eternally long...painfully endless...miserable. We would sneak around alleys, watch convenience stores while invisibly deployed, and pray for one of the other Teams in town to dig up a crisis while we struggled to keep our edge during the odd molasses-like time warp we seemed trapped in.

You're saying, "Too bad you didn't have texting or cell phones or a computer or semi-automatics or satellite television." OK fine, we didn't have all that. But we all have the same biology and the same circadian rhythms. Which means you youngsters today still have the same endless midnights and the same issues of maintaining your edge on those shifts, especially right after a shift rotation.

Folks who study shift work say it takes about three months to totally change your body's rhythm to match a major shift change. A few years ago I interviewed the author of The Twenty-Four Hour Society; he was talking about all the strategies there are to successfully transition from one shift to another and not suffer the fatigue that puts us at great risk.

Most fatigue-related accidents occur between midnight and six am. Even worse news for you nighttime ninja crime fighters, your reaction time and decision making are deteriorated during your transition to new shifts, especially graveyards, which is maybe why it is called the graveyard shift...

He mentioned things like dark bedrooms, white noise generators, supportive family, yada yada yada...This guy was obviously not from the same planet I was. Kids, lawnmowers, dogs, court, phone calls, worry, sunlight, spouses, chores, side jobs, storms. Everything seems to conspire to deny us our rest.

The good doctor even blamed coffee for keeping us up after we got home and exacerbating our problem. Coffee, the nectar of power, brewed energy, liquid horsepower, go juice, super syrup, anti-sleep vaccine, part of the problem? Never.

Ultimately, it comes down to this: When you do a shift change try to normalize your body as soon as possible, focus on getting enough rest, and make sure you keep enough fluids in you. Now, scientists seem to imply that would be water, but I read that coffee wasn't actually a diuretic any worse than water is and it does increase alertness and performance...cool.

So as your nights wear on, do mental imagery to heighten your awareness and sneak around looking for skulking villains, expecting to actually find them. Drive carefully and get that cup of joe if you need it.

And finally, there is the dawn. I don't know why but the sun breaking on the horizon, while beautiful, is like a drug before surgery...One minute you're there, the next you're out.  

Dave Smith is the creator of "Buck Savage" and a retired law enforcement officer from Arizona. Currently, he is the lead instructor for Calibre Press' Street Survival seminar. His book, "In My Sights," a compilation of his POLICE articles, is now available.

Tags: Officer Safety


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