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Saturday, August 1, 2015

Slow Down by 10 Percent

By Terry Terrell
My EMS base changed aircraft recently. We had, during the very early 2000s, bought three consecutively produced Eurocopter AS350B2 AStars. These were ordered as sequential deliveries out of Grand Prairie, Texas, and we flight tested and flew them home green. We completed avionics installations, cabin outfitting and painting ourselves.

It turns out that these AStars were destined to provide great service to our programs for many years. The “best” of the three, presenting an unusually accommodating empty weight and center-of-gravity envelope, was a personal favorite; we permanently assigned it to our central base.

All that having been said, eventually the time came for an airframe change. We said farewell to our old friend and welcomed its replacement. Our crews, though (in addition to emotional attachments to our trusted old workmate), ended up experiencing a few small, material challenges with the new helicopter.

These detail adjustments were not major, but the process of getting used to new equipment reminded me of an axiom I stumbled upon many years ago.

Back then, during initial, exploratory experiences with our first civilian EMS program, we were literally learning by doing. We did this by imitating what I had learned in U.S. Coast Guard operations (insofar as those procedures were applicable) and by consulting frequently with a couple of even earlier EMS helicopter pioneers in Houston and in Pensacola, Fla.

One of the impediments at our location was that available crew quarters were not particularly handy to our freshly constructed helicopter deck. The pilot’s office and quarters, in fact, and the medical crews’ standby locations, were several floors and many hallways distant.

So, since all medical priorities inevitably stressed launch speeds, we spent a fair amount of time considering how to most quickly transit from our standby locations to our aircraft.

Early on, I spotted our flight nurses making risky and unwise haste, literally running down stairwells. We quickly recognized that this was probably not the best way to do things. We figured that walking nurses were at much lower risk of spraining an ankle, for instance, or falling, than running nurses. So we decided on “purposefully walking.”

That choice ended up stimulating a round of quantitative analysis. We used a stopwatch and timed a couple of crew responses, allowing them to run, against a few launches restricted to purposeful walking. We barely were able to measure a difference in time, the figure being a little less than 10 percent. We experienced a “eureka moment”, realizing that “slowing down by 10 percent” might be a memorably catchy and useful precept to keep in mind.

We carried this maxim into areas of activity other than launches and decided that “no running” was a good idea throughout our operations. This certainly included emergency scene settings where running in the vicinity of turning helicopter blades might also somehow not be good (and where it might be contagious, stimulating less-than-safe behaviors in ground-assistance personnel).

Observing that “no running” and “slowing by 10 percent” seemed to promote orderly but still quick operational results, we made another small leap in philosophy by suggesting to pilots and medical crews: “Any time you find yourself at risk of making mistakes, either physical or mental, slow what you’re doing by 10 percent.”

The speed change probably will not be measurable, but the psychological effect of depressurizing your behavior will immediately diminish your mistakes. And nothing is slower, and potentially more dangerous, of course, than a mistake.

So, after years of comfort, we now find ourselves in a thoroughly familiar aircraft, challenged with getting accustomed to a slightly changed environment. In this setting, all of our muscle-memory motor skills may be offset just a bit and our internalized mental processes confounded slightly.

This sets up a perfect opportunity for avoiding mistakes, and consequent compromises to safety, by simply “slowing down by 10 percent.” The effectiveness of this tactic now is well proven in our EMS operations, but there is every reason that it can be envisioned as applicable and effective across a wide range of rotary-wing activities.


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