-T / T / +T | Comment(s)

Wednesday, December 1, 2010

Setting the Safety Culture

By Lee Benson

On July 24th, 2010 the helicopter industry lost a remarkable man and I lost a personal friend. Al Broussard was a mentor and resource both as a pilot and an A&P mechanic to the southern California helicopter community. Not many people understood the Bell 47 airframe from both a pilot and mechanic perspective as Al did. I didn’t get to see Al often these days, maybe three or four times a year. I had known Al since 1974, when I started writing this column Al was among the first to mention it to me. It was obvious from his comments and suggestions that he had read the articles and given them some thought. Al’s input towards expanding the subjects that I had written about in past articles has been incorporated in several of the columns that have appeared here since. A lot of people will miss him, including me.

In my last article I expressed my opinion that the differences in safety cultures found within various organizations have a profound effect on the performance of their pilots in regards to safe flight operations. I further stated that whoever pays the bills sets the safety culture. In the end it’s not the chief pilot or director of operations, it’s the guy that writes the check that sets the safety culture. When I first had this thought, I only went as far as my surroundings at the time took me. My 20-plus years with Los Angeles County Fire as a line pilot, safety and training director and chief pilot had caused me to realize that the Fire Chief, through his management style and capabilities, got the safety culture that he wanted. I had a wonderful first-name relationship with P. Michael Freeman, the Chief of LA County Fire since 1988. He called me Lee and I called him SIR. P. Michael is a demanding boss, who will listen to your concerns, but expects you to have a good, practical solution to mitigate your concerns when you state them. I was in the room on an occasion or two when someone tried to dump their concerns on his lap without a solution, not a good Plan A. I think a lot of people never learn that lesson. But I never forgot one thing he said to me: “I don’t want to attend any more funerals.” Now, I doubt there’s a leader in the country at any level who has stated the opposite. But with some, safety is just a box to be checked off, not a goal to be supported. That’s the difference, the support that comes with the statement. I knew two things when P. Michael made this statement—he would hold me accountable if I failed to deliver and he would support our section’s needs when it was his turn to step up. On a wider scale even segments of the industry can be recognized as having a very mature and robust safety culture. This has affected the accident rate within those segments of the industry. As an example, the offshore oil and gas industry has a fatality rate during a five-year running period that approaches half of the helicopter EMS community. Several years ago I attended an American Helicopter Society meeting in Carmel, Calif. At this conference, Bob Sheffield, the director of aviation for Shell Oil, presented a paper on the risk reduction and training effort that had been implemented by the Offshore Oil and Gas Association. The commitment on the part of the oil companies to create the culture that led to this reduced accident rate was impressive.

This disrupted my “the boss sets the safety culture” theory because in the oil and gas industry it was the customer that made the commitment towards safety in terms of money and operational flexibility. But then I realized that in the case of the fire department and most public safety operations, the fire chief, police chief, boss is the customer and the boss at the same time.

My final thought on this for now is, who is the customer in the helicopter EMS business? It’s not the FAA or the NTSB, they have their roles but they are not the customer. The strange thing is, I think we would all be hesitant to name the patient as the customer. So who is it? Maybe that’s why the EMS segment of the helicopter industry has struggled to correct its safety issue. Some of you may think that I am pointing at the hospitals as the customer in an effort to get them more deeply involved in the culture of safety that I have spoken about. I think the blunt truth is that the helicopter EMS industry has allowed the medical side of the house to become too engaged in flight operations and not committed to supporting good aeronautical decision-making by the operators and pilots.

Live chat by BoldChat