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Navy experts call for more sleep for ship crews

June 20, 2015 (Photo Credit: MC2 Jared King/Navy)

Sailors need more sleep and shorter watches.

That's the unequivocal demand from Navy scientists and safety officials, who claim many sailors operate well below acceptable levels, and point to costly mishaps where lack of sleep has contributed. There's also evidence that adverse sleep patterns contribute to mental health issues and sleep disorders.

Experts have called for a number of changes, to include an end to five-and-dime watch bills (five hours on, 10 hours off), modifications to meal and meeting times, and elimination of disruptions in berthing areas. But change hasn't come easy. Many leaders see the call for more and better sleep as impractical without more sailors or a reduction in the work load. And old school leaders still see it as a weakness.

Those are the attitudes that the service's sleep advocates are tirelessly fighting, so they are arming fleet leaders with new gouge and best practices to promote more alert watchstanders.

"There is a great amount of science that has looked at the effect of sleep deprivation, but the military as a whole has not fully embraced the findings," said retired Capt. John Cordle, who has commanded two ships. "The question is, how to educate commanders on the science of sleep and get it in terms that they can relate to, specifically operational readiness."

'Badge of honor'

A sailor found drunk on duty will be disciplined or even booted out. But countless sailors are standing watch with an equivalent impairment every day. Studies show 22 hours without sleep is equivalent to a blood-alcohol content of 0.08.

Still, "the operational community treats the need for sleep as a resource to be rationed in the best times, and as a sign of weakness in the worst," where a sailor's ability to perform with no sleep is prized as a "badge of honor."

Such were the findings of an independent, two-year study by the Rand Corp. titled "Sleep in the Military: Promoting Healthy Sleep Among U.S. Servicemembers." Completed in April, it is the first comprehensive review of sleep-related policies and realities throughout the Defense Department. The results are telling — "Sleep problems are prevalent, debilitating and persistent in servicemember populations."

More than one-third of service members get the recommended seven hours or more of sleep; three out of 10 get five hours or less, an insufficiency linked with "significantly increased morbidity and mortality." One-third of sailors feel tired, fatigued, or not up to par one to two times a week, and 16 percent feel that way every day.

Lack of sleep impairs reaction time, attention, memory, and reasoning, according to the report. Those with insufficient sleep are more likely to have a high body-mass index, poor nutrition, and fail to meet fitness standards.

Problems don't end when the deployment ends. One in five sailors who returned from deployment said sleep problems still interfere with work or daily tasks "somewhat to very much."

"We are actually causing injury, causing people to experience sleep disorders when we expose them to all these patterns," said Nita Shattuck, an associate professor at the Naval Postgraduate School in Monterey, California, who has studied the effects of fatigue and sleep deprivation for more than 13 years.

The Rand study also found that soldiers who averaged less than six hours of sleep while deployed were more than three times more likely to attempt suicide than those with more adequate sleep, and sleep problems can contribute to the development of post-traumatic stress disorder, depression and traumatic brain injury.

Fixing sleep

Officials said the surface Navy could learn a lot from its aviation brethren. Rules that govern the sleep habits of pilots and air crews are far more rigid.

While no one plan can fit all situations, the Naval Postgraduate School recommends the 3/9 circadian watch bill become the norm whenever possible; this four-section rotation allows sailors to stand watch and sleep at the same times daily. Though it means more watch turnovers, the shorter watches (and better sleep) will sharpen individual focus and provide sailors stability and predictability.

Experts continue to gather evidence that circadian watchbills boost performance. Sailors' reaction time was 13 percent faster and errors were cut by one-third when they stood a 3/9 watch as compared to a five-and-dime, according to an NPS study on the carrier Nimitz that wrapped up in June.

Providing more time to sleep is only half the problem. Weary sailors often contend with noise and uncomfortable racks. Inconsistent sleep patterns exacerbate the problem. Other recommendations include:

  • Better schedules. Schedule routine meetings and division quarters between 9 a.m. and 5 p.m. Extend meal times to accommodate watch turnovers. Ensure that sailors have the chance to sleep at the same time daily, following a 24-hour rhythm.
  • Reduce noise. Arrange berthing by watch section to keep a lid on noise and nuisance during sleep times. Provide better mattresses and curtains that shut out light. Eliminate non-emergency announcements in off-duty berthing.

If you don't have enough people to man the four-section watch required for the 3/9, man a three-section — but ditch the five-and-dime, Shattuck said. A four-and-eight watch bill will bring more stability and better performance. If it does not provide a long enough period of adequate sleep, get a good nap. Don't ask the body to do something it is not designed to do, or there will be unavoidable consequences.

"I think changes are occurring, and that is very encouraging," Shattuck said. "The idea of having crew rest policies for surface ships is going to change the Navy in some fundamental ways. It is going to improve morale and performance."

'The hardest time'

The Rand report found that senior military personnel may have an exceedingly difficult time prioritizing sleep; analysis suggests commanders may be the most sleep-deprived servicemembers.

This comes as no surprise to Cordle. The former commander of destroyer Oscar Austin and cruiser San Jacinto, defined a close call as 30 feet or 30 seconds from a collision or grounding, and said there were four times in his career he put himself in that situation.

"In three of them, I was tired," said Cordle, who now serves as technical director of AMSEC's Maintenance University.

The closest call came during an eight-hour transit of the Kattegat passage between Denmark and Sweden in 2001. Cordle's destroyer led a four-ship column through the dark night, and he had been up all day. On the bridge for situational awareness, he was dozing off while standing up. Sudden commotion snapped him out of it, and the tired skipper quickly realized the ship's crew had lost track of its position.

"It was pretty clear that the watch team really didn't know where the ship was," he said. "Going through a very narrow transit at 2 o'clock in the morning, at about 15 to 20 knots, and there's other ships 2,000 yards behind you, that's a bad time to lose situational awareness."

Cordle took the conn, got a good plot from the navigator and was able to recover, but had to drop formation to do so.

"I got a pretty good butt chewing from the commodore after it, but the reality was I let myself get so tired that I lost situational awareness," Cordle recalled. "When the crew turned to me to make a decision, I wasn't prepared to make it. That really bugged me for the rest of my tour on Oscar Austin."

Cordle turned those lessons learned into a passionate pursuit for change. He dug into medical reviews, studied the body's circadian rhythm, and soon promoted three-on, nine-off watch bills built around four watch teams rotating through a 24-hour day.

"You can have the greatest warship in the world, but if the crew is fatigued and is not operating at peak performance, you are doing yourself no favors," he said.

Cordle's commitment caught the attention of a young mustang serving on the commander's action group. He would later become the executive officer of destroyer Barry and, at the onset of a nine-month pump, presented the idea to the skipper, who gave him the thumbs-up.

"We noticed an immediate impact on crew morale and our [maintenance and material management] got better," said Cmdr. Pat Foster, who now commands the Barry. "The hardest time was getting through some traditional thinkers and breaking paradigms, mainly in the chief's mess. After a few weeks, they came around. From that point, we never received one negative comment from khakis or the deck plate. And I can't count the number of [positive] comments I got. That is about as clear as it gets to me."

Foster knows the pain of sleepless service. He did five years of five-and-dime watches as a chief on sea duty in Japan. As a second-class operations specialist in the first Gulf War, he spent six straight months in port-and-starboard watch — six hours on, six hours off.

"We only had three days liberty in Dubai that deployment. Everything else was at sea. It was absolutely brutal," he said. "I distinctly remember many, many days thinking, 'Do I want to eat or just go to sleep?' If you eat, you are going to wait in line. There was never a line at the chili bar, so I ate chili a lot just so I could go to sleep. I didn't eat chili again for 15 years after that deployment."

Despite its benefits, the circadian watch bill takes careful planning and preparation at every watch station, Foster said. Everyone must be certified to man a four-section watch. On Barry, there were "a small number" of jobs — crypto-technicians and electronic warfare folks — who could not participate because they lacked the numbers of qualified personnel.

If Foster has the opportunity to return to command, would he take the time to implement a circadian watch bill once more?

"Unequivocally, yes," he said.

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