I have a blue-ribbon commission in mind for Ray LaHood as he tries to sort out what to do about sleeping air traffic controllers. The panel members I'm thinking of have names like Preston & Steve, Cataldi, heck, maybe even Harvey in the Morning. Because when I heard the secretary of transportation say he'd never allow naps on the job, the first person I thought of was a radio DJ.
For years, Don Cannon was a popular morning radio disc jockey at Oldies 98. Eight years ago, when I was asked to replace Don Imus' morning radio program in Philadelphia (which meant an early wake-up), it was Cannon who took me aside and offered a bit of wisdom. He told me that every morning radio guy had a routine for outsmarting the grueling nature of waking up in the middle of the night ... and none of them worked.
"The human body," he said, "was just not meant to get up in the middle of the night."
For the next seven years, my alarms (I always set two) sounded at 3:30 a.m. I would often curse Cannon as I got out of bed, because he was right, of course. Ask any cop, doctor or morning radio hosts and they will tell you that waking up in the middle of the night to go to work is a grind.
But I would add a caveat to Cannon's rule: The human body was not meant to get up in the middle of the night, but it does acclimate. Which is something I think is being overlooked by the feds as they try to prevent a narcolepsy epidemic among air traffic controllers.
I get that LaHood cannot afford the optics of paying employees while they sleep. One can only imagine the campaign commercials that would engender. However, in January, the Federal Aviation Administration recommended that controllers break up their overnight shifts by taking naps as long as 2 1/2 hours.
Instead, the plan now is for the controllers to be afforded at least nine hours off between shifts -- a single hour more than had been required in the past. And no longer will controllers be able to swap shifts to get a long weekend unless there are at least nine hours between each shift.
But what's essential is that air traffic controllers not alternate between a normal schedule and an overnight shift. Their bodies can't adjust. Better to have a dedicated night shift whose bodies can adapt to the unusual schedule.
Dr. Charles Czeisler, director of the Harvard Medical School's Division of Sleep Medicine, agrees. He says controller schedules that often require a daytime shift beginning at 6 a.m. followed by an overnight shift the same night can be especially hazardous. A dedicated overnight staff isn't a perfect solution, noted Czeisler, who has served as an expert witness on air traffic controller fatigue, but he adds, "It is easier to adjust to stable shifts than to rotating shifts."
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That's the approach currently taken by the Philadelphia Police Department, according to Lt. Ray Evers, a department spokesman. Every two weeks, local officers rotate through two daytime shifts that run from 8 a.m. to 4 p.m. and 4 p.m. to midnight, Evers told me. Meanwhile, the two overnight shifts -- 8 p.m. to 4 a.m. and the "last out" shift from midnight to 8 a.m. -- are consistently worked by the same officers.
"We had a rotating shift of two weeks on each of three shifts for a while, but it was bad -- just did not work. I did it and it was rough," Evers said.
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Dr. Anthony Mazzarelli, an emergency-room physician and vice president at Cooper University Hospital in Camden, N.J., told me that the American College of Emergency Physicians recommends a similar standard for emergency departments. "The gold standard is not to rotate shifts," Mazzarelli said.
"The major benefit of working dedicated nights is that, once adjusted to the night shifts, a physician is more alert, well-rested, and in the best position to provide optimal patient care -- assuming they are getting proper rest between shifts," he added.
That point is missing in the current debate over sleeping controllers. Combating exhaustion in control towers may require attention to what controllers are doing between shifts, not just how long they rest during them.
"If they are holding down two jobs, playing with the kids instead of sleeping during the day, or burning the candle at both ends in some fashion, then that is going to have a huge impact on what happens during their shift," Mazzarelli said.
I'm betting that's true of those protecting city streets, saving lives in hospitals, and landing planes at airports.
Secretary LaHood, take it from a former morning radio host: Hire a dedicated overnight-controller contingent. You won't have to pay people to nap, and in time those employees will be better acclimated to working nights.
If that doesn't work, he might have to take a page from Ronald Reagan's playbook on dealing with air traffic controllers.
Michael Smerconish writes a weekly column for The Philadelphia Inquirer. Readers may contact him via www.smerconish.com.