Sunday, May 2, 2010

Park Rangers and Call Outs

Very few National Park Service areas have enough staffing to provide for 24 hour coverage by protection rangers who provide law enforcement, emergency medical, search and rescue, and fire duties. As a result these personnel are on call 24/7 whenever an emergency arises. The frequency of such calls back to duty are frequent, unscheduled, and are detrimental to a normal life such as making plans with families or even getting a full night’s sleep. As a district ranger on the Blue Ridge Parkway I averaged ten or twelve late or middle of the night telephone calls per week. On some nights I would get three to five telephone calls for separate incidents. Life threatening emergencies were part of the job. Many times calls were made by people who in their opinion an emergency existed, but any other rational person would disagree. Frequently the reports or information requests that came to me had nothing to do with the park I was working in.

There was the time that a woman called my residence at 2am to ask for the latest weather forecast. I was still trying to achieve full consciousness when I mumbled the forecast I had heard before I went to bed. She became irate and demanded the latest weather report because she was planning a picnic the next day. I tried to explain that she had gotten me out of bed and that she should call the US Weather Service. The woman became even more agitated and started attacking my lack of dedication and that I was a poor example of a public servant. I hung up and she wrote a letter of complaint to her congressman. I then had to draft a letter of response to the congressman.

Being awakened from a deep slumber makes it challenging in the least to absorb critical information when a call comes in. There were several times when I would be called for a motor vehicle crash or other such incident. I would get dressed in my uniform, put on all my gear, get into my vehicle, start the engine and then ask myself, “Now what location did the dispatcher say this was at.” That was actually a good sign because at this point I knew I was awake and I would call the dispatcher to repeat the report.

On one such occasion I got a call for a motor vehicle crash and possible suicide attempt. I went through getting dressed - including putting in my contact lenses - got in my vehicle and started my response with emergency lights and siren going. I noted as I was driving that all the roadway signs looked a bit out of focus. I remember thinking that my eyes must be irritated and I kept blinking and rubbing around them to generate tears. It was not until hours later when I got home and was preparing to get back to bed that I found that I had used my wife’s contact lenses that night.

Fatigue is dangerous and can become a factor that affects not only performance but decision making. As a National Park Ranger I was constantly fighting sleep deprivation and its effects on my job and family life. Call outs and phone calls in the middle of the night were the greatest contributors to this fatigued condition. When people would ask me what I would do when I retired, one of my stock answers was that I would sleep for three years to catch up on all the nights I lost working for the National Park Service. I am still working on catching up.

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