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ISSN: 2327-5146
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Reducing Robust Health-Relevant Cardiovascular Stress Responses Among Active-Duty Special Forces Police

Judith P. Andersen1*, Konstantinos Papazoglou2 and Peter Collins MA3

1University of Toronto, Mississauga Campus, Mississauga, Ontario, Canada

2University of Toronto, Division of Forensic Psychiatry, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

3Complex Mental Illness Program, Centre for Addiction & Mental Health, Toronto, Ontario, Canada

*Corresponding Author:
Judith P Andersen
University of Toronto
Mississauga Campus
Deer Field Hall
Room #4032, Toronto
Ontario, Canada, L5L 1C6
Tel: 1-905-828-5460
E-mail: [email protected]

Received January 31, 2016; Accepted March 9, 2016; Published March 11, 2016

Citation: Andersen JP, Papazoglou K, Collins PMA (2016) Reducing Robust Health-Relevant Cardiovascular Stress Responses Among Active-Duty SpecialForces Police. Gen Med (Los Angel) 4:225. doi:10.4172/2327-5146.1000225

Copyright: © 2016 Andersen JP, et al. This is an open-access article distributed under the terms of the Creative Commons Attribution License, which permits unrestricted use, distribution, and reproduction in any medium, provided the original author and source are credited.

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Abstract

Policing presents a complex set of risk factors for occupational health and safety among officers, including environmental, psychosocial, and health risks. Environmental risks include facing critical incidents such as violent offenders, hostage negotiations, intense crime scenes, and irate civilians. Critical incidents are high pressure situations that are typically time sensitive, and elicit substantial physiological threat responses. When facing a threat, the body normally responds by going into a “fight-or-flight” mode, in which a host of physiological and psychological processes are invoked to help the body cope successfully with the threat [1]. For example, heart rate increases, digestion stops, blood flow to the brain moves from prefrontal cortex (logical thought) to the hindbrain (instinctual drives), and a person becomes less cognitively aware of their surroundings and more focused on fighting or fleeing from the threat. The natural and instinctual physiological response to threat may place police officers at a greater risk of injury or death, by reducing their situational awareness (i.e., ability to notice important environmental stimuli and other threats in their environment), and split-second decision making skills (e.g. shoot/don’t shoot). Advanced police teams called Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) officers, are called to the highest risk encounters [2]. The current research is the first to observe robust cardiovascular reactivity among SWAT officers during multiple, active duty shifts. Significant cardiovascular reactivity may pose a health risk to SWAT officers over time. Accordingly, this research documents the case examples from one team of SWAT officers who applied a simple cardiovascular and respiratory control technique during daily activities. Results suggest that this micro-intervention may have significant positive impact on daily cardiovascular health among SWAT officers.

Keywords

Special forces police; Police stress; Scenario based training; Cardiovascular stress response; Resilience

Police work and stress

Policing presents a complex set of risk factors for occupational health and safety among officers including environmental, psychosocial, and health risks. Environmental risks include facing critical incidents such as violent offenders, hostage negotiations, intense crime scenes, and irate civilians [3,4]. These critical incidents are often high pressure situations that are typically time sensitive and elicit substantial physiological threat responses [5]. When facing a threat, the body normally responds by going into a “fight-or-flight” mode, in which a host of physiological and psychological processes are invoked to help the body cope successfully with the threat [1]. For example, heart rate increases, digestion stops, blood flow to the brain moves from prefrontal cortex (logical thought) to the hindbrain (instinctual drives) [6,7,8]. Thus, and a person becomes less cognitively aware of their surroundings and more focused on fighting or fleeing from the threat [9,10]. This natural and instinctual physiological response to threat can place officers at greater risk of injury and death by reducing their situational awareness (i.e., ability to notice important environmental stimuli and other threats in their environment) and cognitive, splitsecond decision making skills (e.g., shoot/don’t shoot) [11,12,13].

Advanced police teams called Special Weapons and Tactics (SWAT) officers, are highly trained officers with specialized equipment that is not available to other front-line officers (i.e., patrol officers) [14]. In most police organizations, SWAT officers are mandated to first have served as front-line officers who are then required to engage in intensive, specialized training to maintain advanced skills [14,15]. Given the fact that SWAT officers are required to maintain good health and engage in many hours of specialized training, it may be the case that these officers do not display the same robust physiological arousal and subsequent health problems that front-line officers often demonstrate [16,17,18].

The problem is that no current research is available that documents the active-duty cardiovascular reactivity profiles of SWAT officers.

The current study

To address the lack of knowledge regarding cardiovascular reactivity risk among SWAT officers, the current study is the first to monitor cardiovascular profiles over both training and active-duty operational assignments among SWAT officers. Further, based on the observation of cardiovascular profiles, a micro intervention was applied. The micro intervention specifically addressed the physiological risk factors (maladaptive heart rate and respiratory arousal to highly threatening emergency calls). The micro-intervention focused on psychophysiological control techniques that are hypothesized to improve cardiovascular regulation during daily activities and reactivity to high stress encounters in the line of duty.

Methods

Participants

A team of SWAT officers (n = 8) from a large metropolitan city in Canada were monitored during their entire shift for 16 days (5 training days and 11 active duty days). Participants were male, ages ranged from 36-50 years (Mean = 42) with similar years of experience (Mean = 7.92).

Procedure and Measures

During all training and active duty hours, all participants were fitted with a chest band (i.e., Zephyr Bioharness) that recorded ambulatory physiological data. This cutting edge device is one of the first fully ambulatory systems that reliably records physiological threat responses with accuracy comparable to medical grade and lab-based physiological equipment (http://www.zephyranywhere.com/). The bioharness was developed for the US Military for precise biological monitoring during high activity field experiences and is well suited for measurements during police work. This lightweight band worn around the chest, next to the skin, and collects heart rate (HR), respiration (BR), body movement, ECG, heart rate variability (HRV) and core temperature and has a GPS feature for measuring activity. Blood pressure measurements, recorded on the Omron ambulatory wrist cuff, were taken at the beginning and end of each SWAT officer’s shift.

During the five training days, officers engaged in a number of reality-based scenarios (e.g. school shooting, domestic violence, apartment search). All scenarios were conducted under the guidance of expert SWAT trainers, who provided the officers the opportunity to practice advanced skills and techniques. During the training days, all scenarios were observed by the researchers in order to record and match specific activities the officer engaged in (i.e., when they were handcuffing a criminal) to the officers’ physiological profiles in order to pinpoint cardiovascular reactivity to high stress encounters. On all active-duty days, officers wore the bioharness chest bands during time on-base and emergency call-outs. Officers recorded their daily activities in their police notes. Researchers did not accompany officers into the field, rather they later used the SWAT officers’ notes to associate the occupational events with their physiological profiles.

Prior to engaging in the research study, all officers signed a consent form detailing the requirements of the study. This research study was approved by the University of Toronto, Research Ethics Board.

Micro-Intervention

Following the scenario-based training days, officers were taught a simple physiological control technique shown to reduce maladaptive cardiovascular reactivity [19]. Specifically, the micro intervention is to gain enhanced control over the fight or flight response when a person is anticipating, or experiencing a stressful event [9,10]. An empiricallytested method of controlled breathing (i.e., tactical breathing) (5 second inhale and 5 second exhale) [11,20] and mental focus (concentration on the task at hand in a positive, active, emotional state) [21,22] are techniques that place the body in a balanced state of sympathetic and parasympathetic control, in which a panic or highly stress reactive state physiologically not possible [9,20]. We contend that remaining in physiological control allows the officer to avoid instinctual fight or flight actions that include a narrowing of vision and situational awareness; thus, enhancing their cognitive capacities to apply their high level tactical skills and diffuse extremely stressful and risky situations successfully [23].

Results

None of the participants reported any chronic diseases. No officers reported cardiovascular diseases or symptoms specifically relevant to this project, including irregularities or palpitations. Further, all general health-related variables were similar across participants. Specifically, body mass index (BMI) ranged from 26.8 to 32.3 (Mean=29.12). None of the officers reported medication use, cigarette smoking, or any other substance-related use. Daily (beginning and end of the SWAT platoon shift) blood pressure measurements are presented in (Table 1). None of the blood pressure measurements were significantly different from age appropriate norms, or of medical significance. Further, although blood pressure values were somewhat elevated following the police actions, at no time during the study did any officer report cardiovascular irregularities, including palpitations, arrhythmia or chest pain.

  Shift Start Systolic
Mean (SD)
Shift Start Diastolic
Mean (SD)
Shift Start Pulse
Mean (SD)
Shift End Systolic
Mean (SD)
Shift End Diastolic
Mean (SD)
Shift End Pulse
Mean (SD)
5 Training
Days
127.48 (17.35) 77.67 (11.65) 68.79(15.36) 128.17 (18.59) 79.20 (11.87) 108.30 (25.37)
11 Active Duty Days 118.43 (20.30) 75.86 (14.52) 63.53(11.72) 122.47 (11.61) 74.95 (8.58) 66.27 (12.56)

Table 1: Daily Blood Pressure Measurements.

As a visual representation of our findings, we present a number of case examples in the figures below (Figures 1a-2e). A blue line is placed on each figure at a heart rate (BPM) of 100, the value at which the stress response is engaged. The figures are examples of typical cardiovascular profiles gathered from members of one team of SWAT officers. Observation of cardiovascular profiles indicated that during training scenarios (Figures 1a-1e), heart rate regulation (beats per minute, BPM) showed high daily arousal during the hours of active occupational requirements (i.e., above a stress response level of 100 BPM on average). Following the inception of the micro-intervention, daily cardiovascular arousal was reduced during overall shift hours (Figures 2a -2e). Of note, despite periods of rapid cardiovascular reactivity to active-duty emergency calls, heart rate returned to the normal range of resting heart rate (i.e., between 60 and 85 BPM) between the majority of calls (Figures 2a-2c), suggesting overall healthier cardiovascular regulation.

Figure

Figure 1a: Training day, active-shooter school scenarios.

Figure

Figure 1b: Training day, active-shooter school scenarios.

Figure

Figure 1c: Training day, active-shooterschool scenarios

Figure

Figure 1d: Training day, house entry scenarios.

Figure

Figure 1e: Training day, active-shooter school scenarios.

Figure

Figure 2a: Active-duty calls with micro-intervention.

Figure

Figure 2b: Active-duty calls with micro-intervention.

Figure

Figure 2c: Active-duty calls with micro-intervention.

Figure

Figure 2d: Active-duty calls with micro-intervention.

Figure

Figure 2e: Active-duty calls with micro-intervention.

A second observation in this study was that highly realistic training scenarios mimicked the heart rate reactivity observed during real life active-duty calls (contrast training Figures 1a-1e and active-duty Figures 2a-2e). Maximum heart rate reactivity during high intensity training scenarios ranged from (HR_MAX 122 to HR_MAX 182) which are similar to the reactivity demonstrated in real life emergency calls (HR_MAX 107 to HR_MAX 182).

Discussion

This study is the first to present multiple day cardiovascular profiles of SWAT officers during training and active-duty hours. The case examples presented here demonstrate a number of important, novel findings. First, that highly realistic training scenarios mimic real life physiological profiles during emergency active-duty calls. There has been substantial public interest in understanding if current police training is sufficient in preparing officers for high stress emergency encounters with civilians (“The Atlantic” - Stoughton, 2014; “The New York Times” - Thurau, 2015; “The Huffington Post” – [24]. It appears that utilizing active scenarios, modeled after real police calls that have happened in the region, does provide an opportunity to learn and apply specialized skills during periods of realistic high-stress arousal. Considering that police organizations may need to decide to invest in additional training hours for officers in the upcoming years, our data suggests that realistic training scenarios are of more benefit than stationary or classroom guided training. Second, the data reveal that officers also experience robust cardiovascular reactivity to real-world emergency calls. Heart rate reactivity above 150 BPM has been shown to be associated with performance detriments because sensory distortions, such as tunnel vision and auditory exclusion, are likely to occur [25,26]. It is yet to be known if SWAT officers, given regular advanced training, can maintain high performance even in the face of elevated heart rate reactivity. Future research studies should examine performance during a variety of heart rate reactivity levels. Third, the application of a micro-intervention, focused on specific cardiovascular regulation and reactivity risk factors, does appear to aid in the control of maladaptive patterns among these officers. Future research monitoring a micro-intervention over the long term would present evidence if maladaptive cardiovascular regulation could be avoided over time by regular application of intervention techniques. Fourth, there is a significant body of research indicating that police officers are at elevated risk of contracting cardiovascular disease related to robust, recurrent cardiovascular stress responses [27,28,29,30]. Replacing maladaptive cardiovascular physiological responses with resilient responses may have a two-pronged benefit, a). improve cardiovascular health and reduce the risk of disease, b). encourage optimal police performance by maximizing the benefit of a controlled and efficient physiological response to critical incidents. A further benefit of the micro-intervention applied here is that it is brief, free, and contains high face validity for officers, as they experience the immediate benefits of engaging in the intervention. Officers were interviewed upon completion of the study and all reported value in the micro-intervention and recommended this technique for all levels of police officers, from recruits to Special Forces.

Limitations

This observational study consists of one small team of SWAT officers. The present research study is not meant to generalize to all SWAT team officers or front-line officers at this stage. However, given the high degree of difficulty in attaining permission to observe tactical teams in the multi-day, intensive physiological profiling manner as conducted in this study, we believe the case examples provide valuable information for police training and resilience promotion discourse. The profiles (Figures 1a-2e) indicate that future research among this population is warranted.

Recommendations

Significant cardiovascular reactivity may pose a health risk to SWAT officers over time. As previous research from front-line officers indicated, individuals who are routinely exposed to high stress, threatening encounters are two and three times the risk of chronic medical conditions, including cardiovascular disease [16,17,27]. Results suggest that a tactical breathing micro-intervention may have significant positive impact on daily cardiovascular health and stress reactivity among SWAT officers. Given the positive results of the cases examined, it is recommended that a similar intervention be applied to a large sample of SWAT and front line officers in the future. The impact of police officers on civilians is exponential. Police actions can entail life or death decisions for all people involved in a critical incident (e.g., civilians, officers, suspects). Consequently, the health and performance of police in the field is paramount to public safety and, in turn, social welfare.

Acknowledgements

Authors would like to express their gratitude to all SWAT officers who were willing and consented to participate in this study as well as their trainers whose role was essential in providing all the necessary support for the successful completion of the present study. In addition, authors would like to express special thanks to the following Undergraduate Research Assistants at the University of Toronto – Health Adaptation Research on Trauma (HART) research lab for their profound contribution in the completion of this manuscript (names listed alphabetically): Ms. Pamela Adjei, Mr. Andrew Daoust, Ms. Marian Pitel, & Ms. Negin Sohbati.

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  1. Krystian cardozo
    Posted on Oct 13 2016 at 3:20 pm
    The study design is highly interesting. The authors made a terrific attempt to analyse the cardiovascular stress responses in active duty police officers. The article is novel because it highlights the dangers associated with risky and daring jobs such as the job of police officers.
 

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