Surface fleet rolls out revised instruction to get sailors better rest at sea

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The Navy’s surface forces have released a new instruction that seeks to further ensure that sailors are getting consistent rest at sea.

Released Dec. 11, the Comprehensive Endurance, Fatigue Management Program instruction expands on a similar instruction released in 2017, after it was found that sailor fatigue played a role in the fatal collisions of the warships Fitzgerald and John S. McCain, disasters that killed 17 sailors.

The new instruction directs Naval Surface Force Atlantic and Naval Surface Force Pacific to use watch rotations that align with the body’s natural circadian rhythm, which generally means standing watch and sleeping at the same time in each 24-hour cycle, while having a supporting schedule that protects these vital sleep periods, Dr. John P. Cordle, SURFLANT’s human factors engineer and a retired surface warfare officer, said in a release announcing the new instruction.

While the instruction notes that “warfighting, readiness and elite performance” are a priority for the surface fleet, such goals aren’t possible when sailors are getting erratic rest time, the release states.

A circadian watch rotation can be rolled out in a variety of ways, including using a three-on/nine-off rotation in four sections, or a four-on/eight-off rotation in three sections.

“What we find in the studies is not necessarily that sailors are sleeping more under this watch rotation, but they’re sleeping at the same time each day,” Cordle said. “What they like about it is that they can now plan their day. Ships have reported better physical readiness training performance and better morale with circadian-based watchbills.”

Such revisions emphasize the men and women in uniform, he said.

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“You would never consciously skip a planned maintenance check on your gear,” Cordle said. “Our daily maintenance check on our body is sleep. Skipping that is just as bad as not maintaining your equipment.”

An enlightened watchbill is just one piece of the instruction, and ensuring sailors are rested and ready for whatever comes over the horizon also requires changes from everything to meal hours to limited 1MC usage and a more flexible training schedule, among other tweaks, the release notes.

“None of these solutions are simple, but they are doable,” Cordle said. “The goal is to minimize disturbances during sleep hours and focusing most major evolutions in the middle of the day. Let folks sleep in or go to bed early so that they are awake and alert on watch. This includes minimizing meetings, training and announcements during the early morning and evening hours.”

Revisions to the 2017 instruction began last summer and were spearheaded by the Naval Postgraduate School and the Naval Health Research Center.

“We address the fact that a vast majority of mishaps are traced back to human factors and human effort,” Cordle said in the release. “We wanted to provide commanding officers and ships with a means to better manage their workday and watch rotation to improve crew endurance.”

Research shows that fatigue and an out-of-whack circadian rhythm can inhibit the ability to learn or concentrate on tasks, and that long-term sleep deprivation contributes to diabetes, weight gain, heart disease and other maladies, the release states.

Shipboard leaders should make these changes not only for their sailors, but for themselves, Cordle notes.

“If you work too hard, don’t sleep, don’t eat properly, and don’t exercise, you’re going to be unfit, and there’s going to come a time when you’re the last person between your ship and disaster,” he said. “And you’re going to make a bad decision because you let yourself get in a bad place, and somebody could get hurt or killed. You’ve let the crew down.”

About

Geoff is a senior staff reporter for Military Times, focusing on the Navy. He covered Iraq and Afghanistan extensively and was most recently a reporter at the Chicago Tribune. He welcomes any and all kinds of tips at geoffz@militarytimes.com.

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