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Long hours blunt vigilance Task of securing the country starts with border staffing

In an era when the focus on anti-terrorist measures is at an all-time high, Customs officers are bound to feel pressure, but when they are overworked, the public is put at risk.

News reporter Dan Herbeck outlined the stresses Homeland Security officers endure while working 16-hour shifts several times a month. Their accounts call into question the level of security at the Peace, Rainbow and Lewiston-Queenston bridges, where the boundaries of long hours and few breaks are pushed beyond reason.

One officer aptly described the working conditions: "By your 14th hour, you're about as sharp as a cotton ball. . ."

It's hard to imagine that people stretched beyond their limits would be able to reasonably determine exactly who is a terrorist. During those crucial seconds when drivers are being asked their nationality, destination and intent, these officers stand between national security and national calamity. Do we really want them taxed beyond their limits?

The union representing these officers, the American Federation of Government Employees, has filed a grievance with the U.S. Customs and Border Protection section of the Homeland Security Department on behalf of a couple of officers who claimed they were denied bathroom breaks. The union has also filed a complaint with the Occupational Safety and Health Administration.

Customs officials have offered the expected "no comment" on the allegation, though they praise the wonderful job done by officers since the September 2001 terror attacks.

But it's clear a genuine staffing problem exists when base annual salaries of $29,000 to $60,000 are boosted by $25,000 in overtime.

Border crossings can be a routine matter, except for the people charged with safety. They need always to be alert -- a tall order after repeated double shifts, little sleep and high stress.

The answer is more staff -- for the sake of the officers and, importantly, the sake of the country.

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