Always on Duty

Jay: Zed, don't you guys ever get any sleep around here?
Zed: The twins keep us on Centaurian time—standard thirty-seven hour day. Give it a few months. You'll get used to it ... or you'll have a psychotic episode.

In Real Life, ships at sea, police departments, ambulance corps, fire brigades, and other 24-hour organizations have lots of people who work there, and split up into duty sections so that there is always someone available to deal with problems (and on ships, just the usual operation of the machinery, as well) and everyone can get some sleep, food, etc.

In fiction, this doesn't seem to be the case. The Cool Starship runs into the Negative Space Wedgie, and who has the watch? Lieutenant Hero, Ensign Newbie, and Helmsman Recurring. A crime occurs? It's always our usual squad sent to find out what happened.

There also exists a tendency for senior members of the organization to be at the controlling station all of the time. The Captain may be responsible for the whole ship, but seems to spend all her time on the bridge, for no stated reason. This is realistic in some circumstances—some things are important enough that The Captain needs to be involved, however tired she is—but this trope is for when it seems like she may as well set up a cot and sleep there, too.

The reason for this is clear enough: Unless your production has Loads and Loads of Characters, there's only so many people who can be shown at a time. Even then, it's hard to make the audience care about all of them at once. So while having rotating watch stations would be realistic, it is hard to do well.

Related to but distinct from The Main Characters Do Everything. It's not that the hero runs the entire ship himself, from the bridge to the engine room to the hangar bay, but that strange things only seem to happen whenever the main cast is on watch, implying that they're either on watch all of the time and don't eat or sleep, or that the other watch sections are absolutely boring with nothing to do.

A Sub-Trope of Economy Cast and Conservation of Detail. Contrast Lower Deck Episode, when the people on the relief watch do get an adventure. This can be Truth in Television in very small or overextended organizations, but is not sustainable for more than a few days, at which point everyone collapses of exhaustion.

Examples

Film
  • Justified in Star Wars: The Millenium Falcon and its crew are so small that anything that happens to it involves everyone on board.
  • John McClane of Die Hard has been on the front lines of five (with a sixth planned) major heists/hostage situations/terrorist attacks.
  • Officer Bungalon seems to be the only police officer in The Bell Witch Haunting, as he's called out to investigate no matter what time of day it is.

Literature
  • In Lacuna, by and large, encountering anything external to the ship only happens when Liao and the supporting characters are on duty.
  • Lampshaded in Discworld City Watch novels, where Vimes's insistance that he's always on duty is the despair of his wife, Carrot is always on duty because Vimes is, and Nobby and Colon are sufficient Weirdness Magnets that they'll be the first ones in the middle of a bizarre situation even when they are off duty.
  • Averted in some of the Star Wars Expanded Universe. In Allegiance Mara notes that a pirate ship isn't following Imperial navy duty rotation, where a third of the crew is on duty at any time and rotates, but that they have set a "ship's night" in which everyone but a token crew sleeps. In the Hand of Thrawn duology, Supreme Commander Pellaeon is repeatedly either woken up or interrupted from whatever he was doing, as per his orders, when something happens.
    • Played straight in the beginning of Wraith Squadron, during the squad's stay on Night Caller, when they have to stay up to all hours of the night running the corvette because their twelve-man squadron and a shuttle crew are literally the only friendly forces in the star system. For obvious reasons, they make it a priority to get a real crew assigned to the ship from the Republic fleet.
  • Bo Peep Mitchell, in the Southern Sisters Mysteries, is always the one who gets called to the scene any time anyone calls the police after the first book. Patricia Anne even lampshades it by asking "Do you work all the time?" before saying anything else when Fred calls the police to report a prowler and Bo shows up.

Live Action Television
  • Star Trek in all its forms with a few brief references that seem to handwave it, such as occassionally showing a captain arrive shortly after an alarm goes off, as well as having Data and Harry Kim make references and seem to be involved in their respective ship's 'night shifts'. One famous two-parter, Chain of Command, shows what happens when a more micro-managing personality runs a starship (among other things, he orders the entire ship to be changed from three to four shifts.)
    • The night shift is explicitly shown several times over the course of the spin-off series. TNG showed both Data and Doctor Crusher commanding the bridge on the night shift. Voyager had a recurring plot point of Ensign Kim being in command of the night shift (or, seeing as it was Kim, the graveyard shift) and even discussing waking senior officers when an incident arises.
    • Discussed in "11001001" - Data feels responsible for the Enterprise being hijacked, pointing out that as an android he could be on-duty all the time if he chose to. Geordi tells him it wouldn't matter, as the theft could have just as easily happened with Data manning his station on the bridge.
    • Also the point of the captain's Ready Room; a room adjacent to the bridge where he or she can chill out yet be immediately available for a crisis.
  • In Stargate SG-1 and Stargate Atlantis, everything interesting seems to happen when the base commander is around, even though presumably all the planets they're gating to have day/night cycles that don't match up with Earth's or Atlantis's. This extends to the rest of the team, too. The main cast is called SG-one because there's a bunch of other SG-# teams, none of which ever get to do much. The other teams often get mentioned offhand, or used as Redshirt background characters with frequent clobbering to build up a threat, but SG-1 always gets sent to deal with anything vaguely interesting; apparently nothing worth airing ever happens while the main cast is asleep or off-duty.
    • Lampshaded on one occasion where O'Neill gets in, from leave, just as an Offworld Activation is going on. Teal'c, Daniel, and Sam are already in the control room. O'Neill points out that he just got in early, and asks what the others are doing there. Teal'c still lives on base at this point, Daniel says he came in as soon as he heard someone new was dialing in (though it's implied he never left the base), and Sam...well, she had been working so late that she hadn't left yet. This distresses O'Neill, who had apparently ordered her to get a life.
    • Lampshaded again when Colonel Mitchell wanders by Colonel Carter's lab on his way to breakfast. He knowingly asks if she slept there. Carter replies "Of course not...I slept down the hall in my quarters."
  • A throwaway line early on in Babylon 5 once references an officer who mans the control center during the night shift, as part of an attempt to avert this trope. That said, we never see or hear of that officer outside that one line, and whenever we see Command and Control during the night, it is almost always being run by Commander Ivanova and Lieutenant Corwin.
    • Sheridan at one point spent several days on duty in the control room, which was commented upon.
    • Dr. Franklin was also apparently always on duty, but then his major character arc involved coming to terms with his addiction to stimulants.
  • The various lieutenants of homicide who appeared on Perry Mason seemed to show up at every murder (or, occasionally, suicide) that occurred in L. A., despite the time of day or night.
  • Jack Webb did his best to avert this in Dragnet and Adam-12. It is made clear that our main characters are one team out of many working one shift out of many and that just as much happens off-camera as on. Similarly averted on Emergency!.
  • It is lampshadeed in Tru Calling that Davis is always at the morgue.

Videogames
  • Mass Effect: In the first game, leaving the Normandy will result in the onboard VI announcing "the commanding officer is ashore; XO Pressly has the deck"; on the other hand, Pressly is never seen doing anything other than finding the landing zone on Ilos and is summarily killed off at the very beginning of the second game.
    • In addition, Joker is the Normandy's pilot. Not only is there never anyone else shown in his seat, there's never a reference to anyone else flying it even when he is elsewhere (except once, and that was when it was literally being hijacked). Given that it takes two hours to dive into a mass relay, and you may do this a dozen times between stops, the guy must go through a ton of keep-awake pills. Justified after the Collector attack in the endgame for Mass Effect 2, since now the onboard AI has the authority to control it, and does not need to sleep, so presumably EDI controls it when Joker is off duty.
  • With an Alien Invasion going on, there are no days off for the Xenonaut soldiers! Although admittedly they often sit in the base for days on end, doing nothing productive.
  • Heavily implied in XCOM, considering the moment your skyranger is ready to scramble, your troops are already on station. Your troops are shown to have living quarters at the base, but considering the same people can be deployed on mission after mission, sometime within hours of each other(unless injured or assigned elsewhere),one has to wonder if XCOM soldiers ever leave the base.

Western Animation

Real Life
  • Although obviously many things are delegated, there are still some jobs where the job-holder has to be ready at any moment- for example, the President (or Prime Minister) of a country in case of a sudden major crisis.
  • In larger police and security departments there will often be a watch commander (who is a sergeant of lieutenant) or even several covering different geographic areas or divisions (patrol, traffic, detectives, dispatch, etc.) on duty at any given time. In the event of a major incident, a lieutenant or captain is usually woken to respond.
  • Trauma surgeons and other specialized emergency medicine doctors (e.g. burn specialists, toxicologists, orthopedists who deal with neck and spinal cord injuries, and the like), and transplant surgeons are often always "on call" even if technically not on duty - because they are often the best/the only ones around with their skill set (depending on how big the city/the hospital system is and how big the emergency itself is) and because most of the cases that require their skills and attention are time-sensitive emergencies that happen with no advance warning (e.g. a car crash victim may well need the work of a trauma surgeon, a burn specialist, and an orthopedist specializing in spinal cord injury all at the same time), or in the case of transplant surgeons, the organ has to be transplanted while still viable.
  • Small town volunteer fire departments and paramedic services often operate this way, especially when an emergency requires more response than just one ambulance or one fire truck. Small town police or sheriffs also often have, say, only one or two homicide detectives, so if there's a murder in said small town, those detectives will be called in to investigate even if "off duty."
  • Skywarn storm spotters are another example of "off duty but on call." In their case, much of the time they are doing something else/not on duty, but if severe/tornadic storms are expected or occurring, they are notified to begin keeping an eye on weather conditions in their area and reporting anything that looks dangerous/confirm weather radar reports and the like.
  • In militias and paramilitaries, usually this is averted for enlisted personnel, especially noncombat ones, but often in full effect for officers as well as for people with specialized skills. You see, due to One Riot, One Ranger tendencies, officers can spend months solid on the line, even if they ever actually are technically on duty for just a handfuls of days a month, and they are always on call for emergencies, simply because nobody else has the authority or ability to solve them.