Training with alcohol to spot impairment

  • Published
  • By Airman 1st Class Stephan Coleman
  • 81st Training Wing Public Affairs
We are seated in a small conference room with a television, a round table, alcoholic beverages and a police bike parked in a corner. The training we will be assisting security forces with is unconventional, but growing in usage.

Standard Field Sobriety Test training run by police agencies uses inebriated individuals to get officers as prepared as possible for real-world situations.

The 81st Security Forces Squadron is pushing to hold this type of training more often for Keesler personnel, said Officer Warren Breckenridge.

The evening begins with a blood alcohol content check to verify our sobriety, and then an hour of drinking. Beverages are provided and documented over the hour with our individual goals set on a .08 BAC level, the legal limit.

After an hour of surprisingly relaxed discussion and drinking, everyone gets another BAC check. The next hour of drinking is paced to attain or maintain a .08 BAC, because it is difficult for new officers to detect such a level, whereas anything beyond it might be easy to spot, according to Master Sgt. Erik Castro, 81st SFS.

The two hours passes quickly, and after a 20 minute wait, we are all given BAC checks again. With our drinking monitored, we all manage to stay right around the area of inebriation required for the test. The officers down the hall have been running through the SFST procedures and are ready for us.

I dance a little in the hall before entering the test room with a serious face. There are four stations set up with a line taped on the floor. Three or four officers wait for us at each station to administer the tests. They will be evaluated on their performances.

The SFST consists of three parts:

The first test is the horizontal gaze nystagmus test. The individual being tested stands facing the officer and watches his or her fingertip move up and down, left and right, through the air. The individual's head must remain still, and talking is discouraged.

The second test is called the walk and turn. Taking nine steps in one direction while counting aloud, the suspect has to stay on the straight line provided and turn at the end to come back. They must keep their hands to their sides and look at their feet for the duration.

The third test is the one leg stand. With one leg raised six inches forward, an individual counts to 30 with their hands at their sides. Falling over is an automatic failure of the test.

Each facet of the test is described to us while we try to refrain from laughter and hang on to each word, determined to appear completely sober. Some do better than others.

I follow every order the officers give me with precision. The first test takes extreme concentration, but I delight in confidence at my ability to follow the officer's finger without hesitation.

The walk and turn feels the easiest as counting to nine isn't difficult, and neither is walking.

The last test is my biggest challenge because it involves the most multitasking. I repeat a few numbers while struggling to balance myself and lose my composure for a second, but overall I feel good about the entire SFST.

Unanimous verdict from the officers who tested me: I would be taken to jail had they pulled me over.

All the volunteers are at different BAC levels, drank different assortments of alcohol in varying amounts and react to inebriation in unique ways. One individual with the least to drink is the most obviously intoxicated, while another who has the highest BAC is calm and collected. The point is, the variables in drinking are complicated and catching people over the legal limit isn't a perfect science.

My own BAC was only .02 over the limit, and even though I managed to keep from laughing hysterically and mouthing off (mostly), I failed every test. I "knew" while taking the tests that I was passing them, but I failed.

The nystagmus test is especially mysterious to the drinkers. We cannot detect the movement of our eyes like it can be seen by the officers. It isn't a matter of composure -- it's biological. You cannot, at a certain level of impairment, fake that your eyes are moving fluidly when they aren't. It's impossible.

And, the officers are testing for impairment. The legal limit is .08, but those that are deemed impaired can be taken to jail just as readily as someone who tests at the legal limit or above, said Breckenridge.

The training gives junior officers a taste of real-world scenarios as much as it educates the volunteers to the effects alcohol has on them. The training is fun, sure, but it's sobering also, as I stand and watch individuals confidently stumble over themselves.

Alcohol decreases our inhibitions because it impairs perception. The SFST is complicated, even when sober, so expecting to pass with impaired senses while being scrutinized by a trained professional is a mistake.