By Gary S. Rudman, U.S. Air Forces Central, Safety Deputy Director
/ Published July 31, 2013
SHAW AIR FORCE BASE, S.C. -- "Knock-it-off! Knock-it-off!" How often have you heard that? Or more important, were you ever in a position when a "knock-it-off" call should have been made? Why didn't you make the call?
Whether at a Commander's Call, Safety Day meeting, or maintenance back shop meeting, your commander might have asked, "Who in this room is a safety officer?" A few Airmen may have raised their hands. The commander may have asked again, "Who in this room is a safety officer?" The audience quickly understands the real question and all hands go up. Next was the empowerment story, painting the picture of an Airman who determines deviations from procedure and/or a safety issue could cause harm to others, or damage critical assets, and calls "knock-it-off" to stop the process. A young Airman listening to his commander describe this might wonder if there will there be retribution. What if the "knock-it-off" call is incorrect? Can I prevent a mishap? How will I be viewed by my peers?
Nobody wants to be wrong.
In the maintenance world, the Air Force calls the program Maintenance Resource Management (MRM). When to speak or provide a "knock-it-off" call can be defined by a simple rule set: (1) safety, (2) deviations from procedures/rules, (3) when the call adds to the knowledge needed to complete the task, (4) when something has changed from desired expectations, (5) when asked a question to confirm, and (6) when you have pertinent questions.
Here's an example of an easy one to call. Upon climb out from home station, a C-130 encounters a significant, streaming fuel leak from the No. 1 engine. The loadmaster is the first to identify the leak and makes the "knock-it-off" call to the rest of the crew. Once the problem is identified, effective Crew Resource Management (CRM) and training come into play -- aviate, navigate and communicate. Shut down the No. 1 engine. Return to base. Training and CRM prevail. A timely "knock-it-off" call, coupled with required checklist and clean-up items, sound mission planning, and effective communication combine for a successful return with no issues.
Here's another example. An aircraft started leaking fuel from the No. 3 engine during startup procedures. An Airman spotted the fuel leak, immediately notified the aircrew, called "knock-it-off" and terminated the engine start. The Airman secured the scene and fuel spill site, preventing a HAZMAT runway condition. After rapid area clean up and replacement of the failed component, the aircraft was restarted without further delay or incident. Had the fuel leak gone undetected and operations continued, there could have been catastrophic damage. That is empowerment at its best!
Changing culture to affect a "knock-it-off" call can take time. In our Air Force safety and Risk Management (RM) culture, the call is simple; deviations from procedures or rules are not acceptable. Our Airmen are empowered to make a "knock-it-off" call and fully expected to do so.
In the U.S. Air Forces Central Command Area of Responsibility (AOR), the risk is higher. Operations are not the same as the home station training environment, even though Airmen bring their training and knowledge; the circumstances can be very different. Continuity and planning are affected. Who needs to be involved in a critical operation? Has a valid RM assessment been accomplished? Step 1: Identify Hazards; Step 2: Assess Hazards; Step 3: Develop Controls and Make Decisions; Step 4: Implement Controls; Step 5: Supervise and Evaluate. In a closed group, it could appear that a proper RM assessment was accomplished. Outside the group, the situation might not be 100 percent clear. A few misspoken words could impact months of planning and coordination, and result in serious mission delays impacting numerous agencies.
Here's another scenario to think about. At a commander's staff meeting, there's a briefing on an event that will occur in the AOR in two days. Surprisingly, this is the first time the headquarters safety staff is informed of the event. The risk is high and results could be catastrophic if actions and procedures are not correctly performed. Unlike the prior examples, there is a small window to review the proposed action and make an appropriate RM assessment, which could ultimately lead to a "knock-it-off" call. Questions are asked. Documentation is researched. Meetings are convened. In a relatively short time, it becomes clear that there is no detailed plan, nor a formal risk acceptance or process approval package. Plan awareness is based on assumptions versus facts. In the absence of facts, lack of a solid plan, and potential catastrophic results such as severe injury or loss of life, a "knock-it-off" call is made. Within minutes, the forward deployed unit is advised that the impending action is on-hold until clarification is provided. Was the "knock-it-off" call appropriate? Was the situation worth intervention?
The answer to both questions is yes. Valid questions were asked that could not be answered with facts. The reality of the situation was confirmed after a phone conversation with the downrange point of contact. The plan was well thought out, solid and coordinated with all appropriate agencies except one - the headquarters safety staff. Subsequently, approval was granted to proceed. Although a critical communication piece was omitted from the process and a key planner failed to include safety personnel among the planning team, the process was fixed for the next time. All required actions are now in place and a deliberate RM assessment completed. For this action, the "knock-it-off" call was appropriate; it highlighted the need for better communication and resulted in a more integrated and well thought out plan for future operations.
For a minute, put yourself in the opposite situation. You didn't make the "knock-it-off" call. The plan went badly. People died. How would you feel if you had the ability to make the "knock-it-off" call but you didn't? Why? Was it fear of retribution or ridicule? Can you live with not making a decision?
A co-worker, supervisor or commander should never fault you for making a "knock-it-off" call. If you're correct, lives and assets could be saved. If you're wrong, lessons will be learned. If a no-brainer presents itself, make the call and "knock-it-off."