More than inspectors

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Heather Skinkle
  • 451st Air Expeditionary Wing Public Affairs
An island paradise with 84 square miles of white sandy beaches, aquamarine Atlantic waters and mild temperatures year-round might make it difficult for anyone to leave for a six month deployment to Afghanistan.

But Master Sgt. Stephen Charles, a 451st Air Expeditionary Wing ground safety manager deployed from the 285th Civil Engineering Squadron in St. Croix, one of the United States Virgin Islands, did exactly that and left the only home he's ever known.

Charles dealt with weather and altitude changes plus becoming accustomed to a different diet while at Kandahar Airfield, Afghanistan but culture shock was the least of his concerns.

His chief concern was improving the wing's safety effectiveness, but first he had to adjust to learning his deployed job responsibilities, he said.

Charles comes from a small squadron of nearly 50 people, so his job duties resembled more of a safety representative, but with 18 years in the Air Force and nine in safety, he's seen his share of mishaps, though this is his first deployment, he said.

His wing ground safety manager position challenged him in several ways and it gave him a wider breadth of knowledge and experience than he would've been exposed to back on the island, he said.

"I was coined by the chief inspector here and we were recognized as an outstanding safety unit," said Charles.

Despite new surroundings and larger responsibilities Charles's consummate professional attitude, well-spoken, friendly and fair approach went a long way with making him a favorite with commanders, his fellow co-workers and even those he inspects.

"He makes safety not be the bad guy," said Scott Stopak, the wing wildlife biologist. "Safety is there to help and he exemplifies that."

Charles wholeheartedly maintains that a friendly approach helps facilitate the vital safety lessons he needs to teach a unit.

"Safety is all about making people smile," said Charles. "Safety personnel aren't bullies, we are there to make the environment safe."

"When we approach folks doing things wrong we speak to them in a calm manner, inform them of the incorrect procedure and advise them on the correct way to do things," said Charles. "We aim to not just find fault with them but have a two-way conversation and get feedback from the individual performing the task."

Charles enthusiasm for all things safety comes in handy to other members of the safety team.

Stopak surveys different bird species, their diet, habitat and the effects of the wildlife on the airfield here, said that Charles is always quick to help out when needed.

Stopak underscores the importance of active management of the aerial wildlife population here to reduce bird strikes and points to US Airways Flight 1549, or as the media coined it "The Miracle On The Hudson" as a critical example. On January 15, 2009, Flight 1549 with 155 souls on board flew through a flock of Canadian geese, disabling the engines which led to a crash landing six minutes after takeoff, miraculously all survived.

"Reducing the avian strikes decreases the amount of time aircraft remain grounded because of maintenance issues," said Stopak.

Weapons Safety, another crucial component of safety, is all about math and maps, said Staff Sgt. Jeffrey Neahr, a weapons safety manager here.

"In weapons we help commander's make decisions on how much explosives they need to complete a mission effectively," said Neahr. "You have drawbacks to using explosives; you have to consider the utilities that may be destroyed - water lines, electricity poles, flight line, and roads."

Though they have different responsibilities to address in each safety section, all of the safety team agreed that communication is the key to working together and providing the best safety assessments for the wing.

"We have to communicate effectively at this shop, because we are all a part of the safety equation," said Tech. Sgt. Noel De Los Santos, an airfield safety manager.

The safety sections are short on personnel but not on goodwill. The majority of the time the sections work independently from each other, but when they do help one another out it gives each section a wider perspective on safety.

"It's interesting to work so closely together in this deployed environment because we get to see what all the different safety sections do," said Neahr.

The safety sections may handle separate safety issues but they have a united goal: the whole safety team works to ensure the work sections are safe.

"I try to let wing members know we are service oriented," Charles said. "We are trying to preserve their individual lives as well as others, which is more important cutting corners to save time or money."

Ultimately it all boils down to this: following safety guidelines isn't necessary because it's Air Force mandated, it's necessary because it saves lives.