3 Changes to your Rotation Schedule that Can Save Lives

Written by Retired Lt. Ricky Rhodes of Tigard PD/FBINAA #220

If beauty sleep is your top priority, then being a cop just might not be for you. In a study by Boston BWH (Brigham and Women’s Hospital) it was found that 40% of police officers in the US suffer from sleep disorders.

Police Sleep Deprivation

40% of police officers in the US suffer from sleep disorders

I know what you’re thinking, tell me something I don’t already know! However, it’s an astounding statistic given the immense expectations placed on us; to be bright eyed, bushy tailed and alert while working rotating schedules, forced overtime and court appearances.

In my 30 years of experience in Law Enforcement, I have definitely felt the effects of sleep deprivation and have always felt that police departments can do more to mitigate its effects on officer performance. 

A major factor contributing to this problem are poorly thought out rotating schedules. However, rotations are an integral part of many police departments and there is definitely a rationale for using them. 

Benefits of well Thought out Scheduling Rotations

1. Well Rounded Employees

Getting its start in the hotel industry, rotating shifts were introduced in an effort to produce employees that can work a variety of positions. The same benefit is apparent in the police force; well-rounded cops that are able to work at different times, in different areas and with different people. After all, it is statistically shown that the majority of crime occurs in the PM. Officers not exposed to this will be missing a critical piece of their training – real world experience.

2. Helps Reduce Burnout

Police Shift Work

Prolonged periods of ‘shift-work’ (hours outside of 7:00-18:00) can
have a catastrophic impact on employee health and
well being. Research from the International Agency for Research on Cancer (IARC) has been able to demonstrate the carcinogenic effects that long-term shift work can have on employees. Even more, they found that shift workers tended to have higher levels of gastrointestinal disorders and mental health issues. A higher rate of job-related accidents and cardiovascular disease was also reported.

3. Combats Police Boredom

Doing the same thing day in and out can get tedious for anyone. For the same reason that rotating schedules help police become more well-rounded it also helps to keep things interesting and adds variety.

It also gives employees the opportunity to change their schedule if they are stuck with a rotation they aren’t too keen on. New recruits are less likely to be stuck with shift-work for long periods of time.

There are always two sides to the coin, and rotating schedules have their drawbacks as well:

1. Unnatural Lifestyle

Employees tend to like fixed schedules better. It allows them to make plans and have a life outside of the PD. It also allows their bodies time to adjust to their schedules and is less strenuous on their circadian rhythm.

2. Increased Fatigue and Health Issues

While rotating schedules should be designed to reduce burnout, often they do the opposite. A study commissioned by the Chicago Police Lieutenants Association states that, “officers who rotate frequently are more often fatigued, suffer increased level of sleep disorders, are more likely to have traffic accidents and are at increased risk of cardiovascular disease”.

3. Scheduling Issues

Frequent rotations can put strain on police administration. Creating new schedules each rotation, especially if they are frequent, is a tedious and time consuming process (not to mention the bidding process).

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The issue can be made incredibly easy by using an automated system for building schedules. Rotations can be built well in advance and uploaded and populated with employees with the click of a button.

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The Curious Case of Philadelphia PD

Philadelphia Police

Let’s take a look at the case of Philadelphia Police. For decades they had been using a ‘Backwards Clock Rotation,’ which involved working 3 different shifts that switched every week (6 on/2 off). The rotation looked something like this:

  • Week 1: 07:00-15:00
  • Week 2: 23:00-07:00
  • Week 3: 15:00-23:00

What prompted Philadelphia PD to make a drastic change? Well for starters a concerning number of officers were dropping dead before retirement, a larger number were showing signs of cardiovascular disease and there was a peculiarly high rate of job related motor-vehicle accidents. Sounds spooky right?

Dr. Charles Czeisler

Dr. Charles Czeisler, sleep expert at Harvard Medical School.

Captain Lou Campione, of Philadelphia PD, long suspected that the issue was a result of their scheduling and commissioned Dr. Charles Czeisler, an expert in circadian biology and sleep medicine at Harvard Medical School, to conduct a yearlong study. Dr. Czeisler made three significant changes to the schedule:

1. Forward Clock Rotation – he reversed the order of shifts to be in line with our natural circadian rhythm. The rotation still had 3 shifts but looked like this:

  • Week 1-3: 24:00 – 08:00
  • Week 4-6: 08:00 – 16:00
  • Week 7-9: 16:00 – 24:00

2. Four Days on, Three Off

3. Longer Adjustment Period – each shift pattern was extended from 1 week to 3, allowing employees more time to properly adjust

The Result are in: The Best Schedule according to Science!

The changes implemented by Dr. Czeisler yielded dramatic results. At the end of the yearlong study, Philadelphia PD reported a 40% reduction in accidents and a 25% reduction in officers falling asleep on duty. Twice as many officers reported having no problems with daytime fatigue and employees reported much higher job satisfaction.

The reason for the improvements came down to having a schedule that worked in sync with people’s natural circadian rhythms and giving officers a longer period of time for their bodies to adjust to each shift.

Philadelphia PD reported a 40% reduction in accidents and a 25% reduction in officers falling asleep on duty.

What can you do?

You may be saying to yourself that your PD’s rotation pattern is not even close to as bad as Philadelphia PD’s backwards clock rotation. That is probably true, but the insights gained from this study give us the opportunity to look at our rotations with a critical eye. Are problems that we are experiencing as a department related to scheduling? Do our shift patterns and rotations make sense with people’s natural circadian rhythms?

The root of your problems may be written right there in your schedule.

About Retired Lt. Ricky Rhodes

Ret. Lt. Ricky Rhodes

Ricky has over 30 years of experience serving in the police force and is an active member of the FBINAA community, so lets just say he may know a thing or two. Currently he works at InTime helping police departments solve their complex scheduling requirements.