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Fighting fatigue propels mission forward

BUCKLEY AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. --

The main mission at Buckley Air Force Base is to provide the nation and our allies with space based missile warning capabilities. This mission is critical to the security of our nation and others around the world. Airmen performing the duties of missile warning need to be focused at all times to ensure the safety of our citizens and those around the world.

When base leaders began seeing concerning signs resulting from fatigue in Airmen directly involved with Buckley AFB’s missile warning mission, they knew changes needed to be made in order for the mission to continue flawlessly.

Lt. Col. Rena Nicholas, 460th Medical Group director of psychological health, had experience developing and educating other units in the Air Force on how to get the most out of there Airmen. When confronted by Buckley AFB leadership over the health of Airmen directly involved with the mission of missile warning, Nicholas developed the Individualized Readiness and Optimization Needs (IRON) Fatigue program to address issues raised.

The IRON Fatigue program is a type of integrated operational support which “takes certain types of medical expertise that has an impact on operational performance and tries to place it in the unit,” said Nicholas. “In this case, we know that certain things affect the cognitive ability of our space operators who are important to our mission and so we think through all the things that would help them perform their mission better and we try to deliver those things to them as close to the work place as possible.”

Surveys were handed out to supervisors to give to Airmen in order to track the level of fatigue being felt and gain an understanding of what could be changed in order to increase effectiveness. The surveys showed that the pace in which Airmen were having to change and adjust to a new shift was too quick for their bodies to properly adjust, causing increased fatigue. The level of fatigue these Airmen were feeling was found to be equivalent to a blood alcohol level of .08 towards the end of their shifts.

“The circadian rhythm transitions an hour a day,” said Nicholas. “If you rotate faster than your circadian rhythm can keep up, the quality of your sleep is not going to be there so you’re not going to get the same duration of sleep and benefits of sleep.”

To correct the fatigue being felt by Airmen, the IRON Fatigue program educates and provides Airmen the tools needed to understand how to maintain a healthy lifestyle while having to work irregular hours. Airmen began receiving education and training on how to properly adjust to their schedules, and shifts were changed from rotating every 4 days and working 12 hour shifts to rotating every 40 days and working 8 hour shifts.  As well, education on nutrition and personal fitness along with the use of lightboxes which are large lights that mimic sun rays are used to adjust an Airman’s circadian rhythm when needed.

“We are trying give tools to these military members and express to command the adverse effect of having people change shift to quickly,” said Tech Sgt. Andrew J. Burgos, 460th Medical Group Non Commissioned Officer in charge of mental health. Burgos continued to say that if our enemies knew what we knew, they could pick a vulnerable time to slip a missile in, which is why importance has been placed on correcting the fatigue issue.

After making adjustments and implementing new schedules, immediate progress was seen. “On our health markers, things like their weight was going down, their use of nutritionally poor things was going down and things were getting better,” said Nicholas.

The program has drawn attention from units at Schriever and Travis AFB that face the same circumstances as Buckley AFB as a part of Air Force Space Command.

“My goal is always to be helpful,” said Nicholas. “It’s fun to take well people, keep them well, and make them a little bit better.”

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