It is only because ‘not all the holes in the Swiss Cheese lined up’ that I am not dead By: Gordon Graham

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Gordon Graham here! Let me start with the last line of this writing: I was an idiot and it is only because “not all the holes in the Swiss Cheese lined up” that I am not dead – several times over. But I “lucked out” and am still alive. Now “the rest of the story.”

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It started with a chauffeur’s hat

Shortly into my CHP career, I went to a retirement luncheon for Sergeant Fred Norton. It was a nice event with lots of laughs and at the end of it, they gave him a parting gift of a chauffeur’s hat. I thought that was funny but quickly learned it was common for retired CHP officers to become drivers for major company executives. At that moment my plans to go back to school and further my education solidified in my head – I did not want to be a driver for some rich person!

During the four years I was in law school, I was very, very busy – and I made quite a few mistakes – but again not all the holes in the Swiss Cheese lined up, and I skated disaster. There were some very close calls, a few minor solo motorcycle collisions and some tactical errors during patrol operations – but again I missed those “wake-up” calls. (Getty Images)

So, I went back to school in 1974 for one night a week at Cal State Long Beach for 18 months and picked up a designated subjects teaching credential with a focus on driver training. I figured that in the future I could train people how to drive better. Certainly, that would be better than being a chauffeur!

When I finished the program, my academic advisor Dr. Richard Kaywood asked me, “What’s next?” I mentioned my brother was in law school and maybe I should take that path also. He told me that law school would be very difficult with a full-time job. Of course, I thought “I can handle that” and so made an application for the University of Southern California Law School. However, during that process, I was lured away from law school into another program at USC – the Institute of Safety and Systems Management (ISSM).

A wake-up call I didn’t listen to

By now I was spending a lot of time in criminal court – I made a lot of arrests – so I would spend most mornings in court (getting up at 0600 to get to court by 0830) and I then worked the afternoon shift (1345-2215) and took off Mondays to attend this ISSM program. I was busy from 1975-1977 taking one class at a time, working CHP Tuesday through Saturday plus going to court almost every morning and grad school on Monday evening.

It was during this program that I should have received a wake-up call – but I did not listen to it. Most of the classes were on the USC campus, which was exactly where I worked in downtown Los Angeles, but one semester I had a class on aircraft accident investigation at Norton AFB about 60 miles away. So, on Monday (my day off) I would spend the day in court and then drive out to Norton for the 1900-2200 class. At 2200, I would drive 75 miles home to Long Beach. There were several times when I got home that I could not remember the drive – I was essentially on auto-pilot – but I did not change any behavior. At that point in my life, I subscribed to the “no harm, no foul” line of thinking.

After grad school, I went to law school at Western State University (at that time the biggest law school in America because they took everybody in as a student) for three classes a week. I went to law school Saturday morning, Sunday morning and Monday night – still taking Sundays and Mondays off. I was still going to court almost every weekday and on the days I was not in court I was an “extra” on the TV show CHiPs, which was filmed mostly in my office in downtown Los Angeles.

A wake-up call I had to listen to

During that four-year window, I was very, very busy – and I made quite a few mistakes – but again not all the holes in the Swiss Cheese lined up, and I skated disaster. There were some very close calls, a few minor solo motorcycle collisions and some tactical errors during patrol operations – but again I missed those “wake-up” calls.

I was scheduled to graduate law school in July 1981 and take the July Bar Exam – but on June 18 I made a major mistake. This time all of the holes lined up and I T-Boned a 914 Porsche at high speed and ended up in hospital for a month missing classes at law school thus delaying my graduation and postponing the bar exam until February 1982.

Did I learn anything from this? Apparently not! I came back to work in 1982 and I was promoted to sergeant. I passed the bar and opened my law practice and got married and now my schedule got even busier. Between 1982 and 1992 I still took Sundays and Mondays off – and I would get up at 0500 and head to the gym at the Los Angeles Athletic Club in downtown LA to catch an hour workout, clean up and have breakfast and then drive to Hollywood where I would practice law from 0800-1200, catch lunch, get to the CHP at 1300 and played sergeant until 2200, and then back up to the law office at 2230 to catch up on paperwork for an hour, then home and up again at 0500 to do it all over again!

I could continue to bore you with the time I spent preparing for lectures, going to court – both as a cop and as a lawyer – preparing cases, handling clients, husband responsibilities, children responsibilities driving all over California to teach different classes – and the “close calls” were happening more and more and more and then the health issues starting popping up – and I had a long chat with Dr. David Bloom and he and my lovely bride convinced me that I was “killing myself.”

Do not make the mistakes I did

As I write this today I am 72, have reduced my travel schedule to less than 10K miles a month and I get to sleep in most days (until 0600). I take my walk in the morning and enjoy being with Mrs. G. I have time to read, write and reflect a lot on where I am and how I got here. But as promised I will go back to the start of this writing.

I was an idiot and it is only because “not all the holes in the Swiss Cheese lined up” that I am not dead – several times over. Please do not make the same mistakes I did.

I am now aware of the dangers of sleep deprivation and how it impacts decision-making, critical thinking skills, awareness, coordination and balance, disposition, vision and lifespan. I am fortunate to be on the staff of the University of Virginia’s Master of Public Safety Program. I have an elective course entitled “Practical Applications of Risk Management in Public Safety Operations” – and I look at my students (it is all asynchronous learning on ZOOM) and I see “me” in their faces. Full-time job, going to school, taking care of family – and I caution them – as many people cautioned me back 40 years ago – not to burn myself out. I hope they listen to the words I ignored for a couple of decades.

Please understand the problems caused by a lack of sleep and don’t do what I did. Again I tell you I was an idiot and it is only because “not all the holes in the Swiss Cheese lined up” that I am not dead – several times over. Please listen, learn and act.

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