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Tired Brains (fatigue) and Situational Awareness

I get asked often about the role of fatigue in situational awareness. Sometimes the question is based on general curiosity. Sometimes the inquiry is a result of someone seeking support for (or against) an extended work schedule. I sure don’t want to get caught in the middle of that debate but the question is a good one. Does fatigue impact situational awareness?

I don’t know of any specific studies that link situational awareness to levels of fatigue. However, there is a lot of research that links fatigue to lower levels of physical and mental performance. That’s what I want to talk about here.

Research on FatigueSituational Awareness Matters!

Research has shown that fatigue can impact mental performance and thus it could be a reasonable conclusion that fatigue would also impact situational awareness. The basic findings of numerous research studies conclude the tired brain does not think or perform as well as the rested brain. This includes measured performance on aptitude exams, recall exams, and physical performance exams. Essentially, fatigue slows a person’s ability to figure things out and then to perform things once they do have it figured out.

How Much Sleep

How much sleep does a person need to overcome the effects of fatigue? Unfortunately, the amount of sleep a person needs varies so much from person to person that it is extremely difficult to quantify the answer. There are both quantity and quality of sleep issues to be considered as well. Uninterrupted sleep, allowing the brain to maneuver through different stages of the sleep cycles seems to be an important component of the equation. This may have ramifications for first responders whose sleep-wake-sleep cycles are interrupted.

Stress is a Factor

Situational Awareness Matter!A responder who is awakened from sleep to respond to a stressful call may not be able to return to restful sleep following the call because of the chemical and hormonal changes that result from a stress reaction. Science suggests that if the responder is required to perform strenuous activities during the call (e.g., a working structure fire) the lingering effects of the chemical dump are far less impacting. In other words, physical activity allows a responder to work the chemicals out of the system.

A false alarm call may be another story, however. When awakened from sleep for emergency response, the body is going to react and chemicals are going to be released. If the call ends up being a minor emergency where the responder does not have to engage in physically demanding activities, some of the chemicals may linger in the system and make it harder to go back to sleep.

I’ve experienced this numerous times throughout my 30 years as a first responder, especially when being dispatched to a high-risk, high consequence emergency only to arrive at the scene to find a false alarm or an emergency of far less significance than I was physically and mentally prepared for. On those occasions, I found it difficult to go back to sleep. Conversely, after I performed physical tasks at emergency scenes I found it far easier to return to restful sleep. I used to think it simply meant I was just tired from the physical activities I performed. While this is, in part, true. I was also (unknowingly) working out stress-induced chemicals and hormones.

The Safety Nap

Situational Awareness Matters!Some responders believe taking a “safety nap” can help improve mental performance. In part, it does. Generally, any rest a responder gets is better than no rest at all. However, a nap may not resolve systemic fatigue. Sleep is a critical component to brain function and when there is not adequate rest or disrupted sleep, the impact can be real and measurable.


The Work Schedule

The schedule of some public safety providers may not be conducive to adequate rest. Twenty-four-hour shifts in organizations that are busy service providers can present some real challenges to situational awareness, decision making and problem-solving. I have talked to many providers who admit the quality of their care and decisions may not be as good at night as it is during the day. Adding additional fatigue by having responders work forty-eight-hour consecutive shifts (by design or by overtime) and the problem of fatigue impacted decision making and physical performance could be compounded.

Physical Rest is Not Mental RestSituational Awareness Matters!

Many people believe if they feel physically rested, they are mentally rested. In reality, when the physical body rests, the brain is not resting at all. In fact, the brain is surprisingly active while the body rests… suggesting the body rests so the brain may have access to more energy (glucose) to do its heavy lifting. And what is the brain doing while you sleep? Laboratory research suggests the brain is sorting through all the data from your previous waking period, cataloging the events for future use. Hence, fatigue can not only impact your short-term performance and memory, but it may also impact your long-term recall.

Dr. Gasaway’s Advice

Responders who work long hours must be provided with opportunities to rest their brains. It’s not a matter of being lazy as bureaucrats would like to believe. It’s a matter of personal safety and ensuring your ability to provide high-quality service to your customers. Physical activity is good for the brain. Be sure to get some exercise during your workday. Research suggests aerobic exercise is best, about 30 minutes a day, 2-3 days a week. Exercise also causes the release of chemicals and hormones that aid in your ability to think and perform under stress. Think of it this way… exercise also creates stress on the body… but this stress is good stress.


Action  Items

1. Describe a time when you think your situational awareness and/or decision quality was impacted by fatigue.

2. Discuss ways to ensure responders can get adequate rest during extended work periods.

3. Discuss strategies for ensuring you get enough rest when not on-duty.


If you are interested in taking your understanding of situational awareness and high-risk decision making to a higher level, check out the Situational Awareness Matters Online Academy.
CLICK HERE for details, enrollment options and pricing.


Share your comments on this article in the “Leave a Reply” box below. If you want to send me incident pictures, videos or have an idea you’d like me to research and write about, contact me. I really enjoy getting feedback and supportive messages from fellow first responders. It gives me the energy to work harder for you.




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4 thoughts on “Tired Brains (fatigue) and Situational Awareness”

  1. Carina Martinez

    Excellent points, Rich, I am so glad you bruohgt up this subject to examine.The irony of course is that in some instructors’ desire to teach their students not to repeat actions that were foolish, they end up inadvertently loading those decisions into their students’ minds. I’ve heard this referred to as negative training’, and in our industry, obviously the results can be deadly.

    I think also of the instructors who want to take down’ the students who are performing well in exercises, and think that is going to teach humility. For example, during simulation-based exercises, if a student does not articulate searching a room, the instructor might be inclined to say that room was filled with nuns and babies (as a colleague of mine used to say). The missed search definitely should be called out during the critique/review (and, depending on the purpose of the exercise, may be grounds for failure), but I would disagree with slanting the whole exercise on the fly as a result of their mistake.

    It’s not that the missed search should be ignored, but it is essential to build and encourage confidence in students. Mistakes on the fireground will always happen, and there will be consequences. However, I think we are training them to fail if we unfairly try to undermine their confidence in their skills and decisions.

  2. Pingback: Situational Awareness and Safety - The key to a Safe Mission - Afterburner

  3. Pingback: Situational Awareness and Safety - The key to a Successful Mission - Afterburner

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