6th OSS Air Traffic Control tower operates 24/7, 365
Story and art by Staff Sgt. Randy Redman
Millions of shift workers throughout America perform critical functions in hospitals, on police forces, as emergency personnel, and in the transportation and manufacturing industries. In addition, they are meeting the demand for "round-the-clock" service in an age of global interaction.
Of the many offices that operate 24 hours a day here at MacDill, there is one that stands a little taller than the rest - literally.
The Airmen who man the Air Traffic Control tower have a great view of most of the base, and even get to see the sun rise and set from their office chair. Since planes come and go at all times, someone must always be in the tower to coordinate takeoffs and landings, and to ensure the air space is synchronized with Tampa International Airport.
"If it comes in or goes out of MacDill via the sky, then I am up in the tower cab ensuring everything is accomplished correctly and expeditiously," said Staff Sgt. Kristen Foust, 6th Operations Support Squadron, Air Traffic Control Tower watch supervisor. Sergeant Foust, who has been a controller for seven years, said the biggest challenge is adjusting to the rotating schedule the controllers keep.
"It is against your body's natural rhythm to sleep during the day," she said. "This coupled with normal daytime distractions such as the telephone or appointments can result in an inadequate amount of sleep."
Studies of night shift workers show that almost everyone who works through the night suffers from a condition known as shift lag. Some are more able than others to adjust to the differences, but a high proportion find it very difficult to cope with the extra stress created by working at night, even after considerable experience. This stress often leads in turn to a lack of quality sleep, which makes the problem worse. It can become a vicious cycle.
Studies compiled by the Circadian Learning Center have shown that shift workers, especially those who work nights, can suffer from a number of health problems.
These ailments are two to three times more frequent among shift workers. One of the causes is poor eating or diets high in saturated fats. Too much fast food is consumed because of constant tiredness and lack of time to prepare healthy foods. People also have difficulty digesting food during the overnight hours. Other factors include disturbed sleep, overeating, excessive coffee drinking, smoking and psychological stress.
To counter some of the negatives, the 6th OSS follows doctor recommendations to rotate the work schedule so that each shift is later than the next. The schedule consists of two da y shifts (6 a.m. to 2 p.m.), two swing shifts (2 p.m. to 10 p.m.) and two mid shifts (10 p.m. to 6 a.m.) followed by a day and a half off.
Staff Sgt. Kerry Hall, 6th OSS, Air Traffic Control Tower watch supervisor, said despite what some would consider drawbacks, he has adapted quite well and thoroughly enjoys his schedule.
"Sometimes it seems like you may be forgotten because you only see the people that you work on crew with," he said. "But I'm a stand-up guy with an outstanding crew; so it's kind of hard to forget about me and my crew."
He added that he tries to make the most of his time off duty to make up for the unusual hours his job requires.
"I make sure that any available time I do have, I utilize it by spending it with the ones that I care about," said Sergeant Hall.
That, among other things, is one of the recommendations of the National Sleep Foundation, which has a large section of its Website, www.sleepfoundation.org, devoted to shift workers. Other suggestions for coping with shift work include working with others to help keep alert, trying to be active during breaks and exchanging ideas with colleagues on ways to cope with the problems of keeping overnight hours.
So while the majority of MacDill's personnel are sleeping soundly, the Airmen in the tower are ready and alert to ensure the Tampa skies are accident free.