Half of patrol policemen have fallen asleep behind the wheel

Taavi Kirss.

PHOTO: Mihkel Maripuu

Almost half of patrol policemen admit having had episodes of microsleep while behind the wheel of an alarm vehicle. Even though police officers’ work schedule theoretically ensures enough downtime both before and after shifts, patrolmen get so tired they cannot always ward off sleeping while driving.

Herdo Kala questioned 157 police officers for the purposes of his Tallinn University diploma thesis, 46 percent of whom admitted having experienced episodes of microsleep while driving an alarm vehicle on duty. Microsleep is a condition where a person falls asleep for a brief moment, becomes inattentive and glassy-eyed, with their head drooping. Microsleep can last anywhere between a few seconds and 20 seconds, while it usually occurs for 4-5 seconds.

Most patrol officers feel tired during a night shift, with 90 percent admitting as much.

Head of the patrol service of the North Prefecture’s Tallinn City Center Police Department Taavi Kirss admitted that he has experienced several episodes of microsleep in a police vehicle during his ten years of fieldwork.

“I believe it has happened to a lot of police officers, just like it has happened to other people working nights. A policeman is a person like any other, and humans are meant to sleep at night,” Kirss said.

A patrol shift usually spans 12 hours, with the night shift traditionally starting at 8 p.m. and ending at 8 a.m. “Weariness hits you closer to morning. The work of a patrol officer sees critical situations and more peaceful periods take turns that takes a toll on the human body. As long as you have a lot of calls and things do to, you do not notice the fatigue. But it hits home when things calm down and you are just cruising around in your patrol vehicle – that is when weariness can take hold,” Kirss said.

He added that night patrols become more strenuous as the years go by. “When I started as a young officer, my body was in better condition and everything seemed easier. Years later, the early hours of the morning might prove quite challenging.”

One long and several short ones

Over a third of officers questioned have been involved in a traffic accident with a patrol vehicle, while just 4 percent admitted the accident was caused by fatigue.

Police Cpt. Kirss cannot recall an incident where the driver of a police vehicle was involved in an accident due to overfatigue. “I have not had such an accident myself – thank God – and I do not know of anything like that having happened to colleagues of mine,” Kirss said.

Patrol officers can take an hour-long break during their 12-hour shift and a 10-minute break every three hours.

When an officer driving a police vehicle feels tired, they can do quite a lot about it. One option is to ask their partner to drive, while it is also possible to stop and get some fresh air.

“If possible, the officers can park their car and go on patrol on foot. They can have their 10-minute break. A coffee break always helps,” Kirss said.

Policemen are not allowed to park in a side-street and sleep in the vehicle. “That is not okay, something like that would not look good. When an officer feels the need to sleep during their one-hour break, they can head to the station. A policeman sleeping in their car in the street looks quite bad,” Kirss said.

The captain added that the City Center Police Station in Tallinn is one of the busiest in the country, so officers on patrol are kept plenty busy and do not have time to remember they’re tired.

The station gives its officers enough time to rest before and after shifts. Policemen get 12 hours off before and after every shift.

No one keeps tabs on an officer’s use of their free time nor would it be possible without having them under constant surveillance. Kirss finds that it is up to the person to take responsibility for these things. A policeman, like any other person, must be responsible for their mental and physical capacity and capable of deciding how to spend their day.

“It is impossible to check whether a person spends their free time resting. But I can assure you out of personal experience that a police officer spends their downtime sleeping. I remember falling asleep at any time during time off. If the opportunity presents itself, it needs to be seized,” Kirss said.

The ordinary work schedule at the North Prefecture sees patrol officers do two consecutive day and two night shifts. An officer must have four free weekends during a four-month period. While most patrols run from 8 p.m. to 8 a.m., some start at different times to ensure reserve capacity and avoid a shortage of patrols during a certain period. At the same time, the schedule is flexible and patrols can put in shorter shifts if needed.

“Patrol officers are on total working time, meaning that they have fixed hours they need to put in over four months. They build up overtime during these four-month periods that must also be compensated with time off at some point. They cannot overwork themselves,” Kirss said.

Patrol schedules are fixed for a relatively long time in advance and officers do not have much freedom in choosing when to work.

“Older officers tend to prefer to work during the day. We can offer them traffic supervision shifts. It is possible to adjust one’s schedule. People also have personal lives to lead,” Kirss explained.

Policemen driving ambulances

Kirss noted that police officers often work several jobs, with the ambulance service as one popular option.

“Officers work ambulance driver and field operator shifts for the emergency response. The latter also has field operators managing which brigades respond to which incidents. This practice is very useful in our work because if a policeman has a paramedic’s training, they can apply those kills when arriving on the scene before an ambulance. It’s two in one,” Kirss said.

If a police shift lasts for 12 hours, paramedics work 24-hour shifts.

“That said, police officers are obligated to come in rested after doing additional work. We keep in touch with emergency response and can compare schedules,” the head of the patrol service explained.

Kirss said that a person who starts work as a patrol officer is aware of the obligation to work 12-hour shifts and needs to keep it in mind. While he admitted that shorter shifts would be preferable from the point of view of downtime, available resources favor 12-hour shifts.

“A Stockholm patrol works nine-hour shifts and 36-38 hours a week. Police officers at our station work 48 hours a week,” Kirss said.