Running on Empty
When there is no balance between the high-stress high demand of our professional life and the needs of our personal life, we are not functioning at our highest level.
When I graduated from FTO in the summer of 2018 my call sign was 3C27. Six months later the 3C Fort Collins troop received two more Troopers making the highest call sign 3C29. Back in “those” days, I realize I am far too junior to say that to most of you but bear with me as I share my experience with staffing over the last 5 years. So back in “those” days pre-pandemic when I was a baby trooper full of vinegar, I had all the support and cover anyone could ask for. I had senior
teammates whom I could learn from. We could talk about things I was doing wrong and they had the ability and desire to teach me, to make me better. I remember an early set of roadsides after FTO when a DRE on my team stopped to cover me. After the stop, we spent time on the side of the road along the Mulberry corridor talking about little ways I could improve my administration of the tests.
I remember dispatch airing REDDI reports and four of us hustling down I25 trying to find our suspect vehicle. Scheduling and vacation bids were a breeze. We had enough people that most of the senior guys got a shift they were happy with and we junior troopers could take leave when we wanted. If someone was down on a lot of reports they were grounded to the office while the rest of us covered calls for service. There was never any weight felt by this, we all had our turn and the ability to complete the administrative tasks that accompany taking bad guys to jail. There was a balance. A give and take.
A healthy marriage. This is the example I’ve heard many supervisors within the patrol give.
Then the pandemic. Then the anti-police movements. Then retirements. And transfers and separations. Today I am 10th in seniority. Several members of my team are high on the promotions list so before I know it I will be 3C9. 3C single digits. WHAT????? The almost five-year trooper in me says bring it on. I know what I’m doing and am capable. The rest of me says in what universe should a five-year trooper have a single-digit call sign in a troop that performs at its highest level with 30 people? 30 people.
My team, the guys I work with every day, is comprised of three people, me and two other troopers. For those of you who have experience working in metro troops, you can imagine what this looks like. No cover. No peer training. Calls stacked to you. No more being grounded to the office. And when you take time off you are
directly impacting the two people who rely on you every day. When I do have a day off when my team is working I feel guilty. Guilt that my guys are working call to call with no time to eat lunch let alone work on reports. So, when I’m off work let’s say using a holiday or our much needed wellness leave, this should be a positive thing for me. I shouldn’t be thinking about work but I am, my teammates rely on me. I feel guilty because I’ve been there, I know what this feels like. You and one other person working, you’re both already on a call when a serious injury crash occurs 50 miles away from where you are and there is no one to respond. When your teammate has an uncooperative or combative subject but you’re already in the thick of another incident. Or our partner agencies asking for our assistance and we can’t assist them. What long-term impacts does this have on our partner agency relationships?
When you are on regular days off there have been and always will be things that interrupt this time, DOR, court, and training. But when there are fewer troopers sharing the work there are increasingly more instances where days off are interrupted by these events. And this doesn’t include paperwork. Since you’re going from call to call to call the amount of paperwork you can complete and turn in during your regularly scheduled shift is slim to none. But there are deadlines written into policy and statute, so what do you do? You work from home when you are supposed to be off. When you are supposed to be decompressing from work and reintegrating into civilian life, family life. The time you are supposed to spend doing chores and getting groceries is spent instead on reports. The time you should be spending with your family is spent with your head buried in your computer. In my family, we spend Sundays together. We all go over to my in-laws’ house and have lunch and spend the rest of the day together, playing pool or watching movies or whatever game might be on. Many Sundays when we make the drive to Firestone I pack my MDC and case files. I spend my time working instead of laughing and building precious memories with my family. And then the guilt sets in. Am I really present with my family if I’m working on reports? How are they impacted by this? What are they feeling? My job is to protect and serve. Yes, I’m protecting my family but how am I serving them when I’m present in body but not mind? When my mind is elsewhere when I should be engaged with them? Are my boys growing up thinking my work is more important than they are?
When there is no balance between the high stress high demand of our professional life and the needs of our personal life we are not functioning at our highest level. We have a small window of tolerance and burnout is high. Burnout from short staffing is a real true thing. It’s not from being spoiled or being weak. It comes from no reprieve from work. No ability to reset. No ability to be you as a person, who you are when you’re not in uniform. And we owe everyone, including ourselves, so much better.