We’ve been talking about some of the less celebrated position in Starfleet, specifically the consoles along the back of the bridge on the Enterprise-D — two Science stations, Environmental Systems, Mission Operations, and Engineering. Although there are some good reasons to make some permanent assignments to these positions, even on a big ship like the Enterprise-D, they just didn’t have the manpower, so in practice, one guy did it all: the Relief Bridge Officer.
The TNG Technical Manual mentions that on a Galaxy class ship, the standard bridge complement during “Cruise Mode” (i.e., not Red Alert or Yellow Alert) is a Command officer (in the big chair), Conn and Ops officers (in front of the big chair), and an additional officer (behind the big chair) who can fill in as needed at Tactical or any other back-of-the-bridge station. Various non-canon sources call this extra guy the Relief Bridge Officer, the Bridge Operations Officer, or the Bridge Duty Officer. He does what needs doing. Some weird space anomaly needs preliminary analysis? He goes to the Science station. Something needs shooting? Walk over to Tactical. Check the status of the warp core? Engineering. Bridge seem a little stuffy? Environmental Systems.
When the officer in command declares Yellow Alert or Red Alert, the appropriate personnel catch the next turbolift to the bridge, and if there’s something else that requires more sustained attention or specialized expertise, you can always ask an appropriate specialist to report to the bridge. In the meantime, the Relief Bridge Officer keeps things from exploding too badly. When the experts show up, the RBO sort of fades into the background, monitors whatever station seems monitoring, and stands ready to swap in where needed.
Probably during the quieter Beta and Gamma Shifts, it’s just these four guys — Command, Conn, Ops, and RBO. During Alpha Shift, it’s clearly standard procedure to have the Chief Security Officer or one of his deputies at Tactical, but you probably still want that Relief Bridge Officer around. Even if it’s an uneventful shift, you want to allow some 15 minute breaks. Hopefully, one of the upgrades of the Sovereign class bridge was some sort of little break room just off the bridge where officers can step off the bridge, have a quick bite, hit the head, etc. Maybe some of those Defiant-style bunkbeds, in case someone needs a power nap? The “Lower Decks” type officers who really want that promotion should sleep in their uniforms in the Bridge Bunks, and then rush onto the bridge as soon as the Yellow Alert light starts flashing.
As exemplified by Worf in TNG Season 1, Relief Bridge Officer (Alpha Shift) is one of the best gigs around for a Command division (red shirt) Ensign or Lieutenant (j.g.), right up there with Flight Control / Helm. If you don’t get one of those spots, you’re looking at something like Gamma Shift Officer of the Watch, or maybe something in Flight Deck Operations wrangling shuttlecraft, or maybe even something purely administrative like Yeoman. Alpha Shift bridge time is the key to advancement — Worf and Geordi both moved up to department heads after just a year on the bridge, and Lieutenant Hawk from “First Contact” had the steely gaze and solid jaw of a future Second Officer.
As a Relief Bridge Officer, you probably work every station on the bridge in the course of a typical shift (unless there’s an android at Ops), and when the First Officer is putting together an Away Team, there you are, looking young and eager and expendable. The bad news is that the Relief Bridge Officer is a lowest ranking guy in a red shirt, and therefore has about a 50/50 shot of surviving that first year. This is not a job for a guy like Reg Barkley who is going to grind along as a junior officer for twenty years — you are either headed for senior staff or a body bag.
The Sovereign class Enterprise-E seems to have done away with the Relief Bridge Officer, insofar as it has fifteen duty stations, most of which seem to be filled at all times. I’ve seen nothing official or even semi-official breaking down who is doing what at all these extra stations, but fan speculation posits separate Tactical and Security stations, dedicated Navigation and Communications stations a la the original series, and multiple Mission Ops and Science stations. I’d like to think that at least in the wee hours of Gamma Shift, it’s still just Command, Conn, Ops, and a Relief Bridge Officer, changing seats every half hour and finishing up in the Counselor’s chair, where he says, “I’m sensing we should go get some breakfast.”