Managing Peril: An Airman’s perspective

  • Published
  • By Lt. Col. John Cooper
  • 55th Combat Training Squadron commander
At any given moment, scores of Airmen are doing something dangerous. They are putting millions of dollars in materiel in peril and risking life and limb. They're not likely to stop. They are not riding motorcycles, parachuting or bull riding. They are doing their jobs.

At the 55th Wing, many of our daily duties are inherently risky. We fly and fix airplanes, operate heavy machinery, handle weapons, maintain powerful electrical and communications gear, and deal with hazardous materials. Despite all of the precautions we take, we cannot avoid the fact that we regularly face situations that are "flat" dangerous. How then do we manage situations that are unavoidably dangerous?

As the former 55th Wing Chief of Safety, it might surprise you to know that my advice is not to make your first call to your safety office. You should know your squadron and wing safety representatives, and interact with them on a regular basis. But while the Air Force safety offices are a tremendous resource for information, safety is not an operational organization. Safety programs do not own or operate your equipment and personnel, nor do they conduct your missions. When hazards are reported to the safety office it is only able to effect change by highlighting issues to the chain of command for action. This might seem like a small difference, but it represents an important Air Force philosophy. Safe operations are created by professionals who know their jobs and do them well. The safety office is a tremendous resource, but the technical knowledge and responsibility to safely solve problems resides with you and your unit.

When faced with a dangerous situation, the real safety officers you need to talk to are your direct supervisors, instructors, evaluators, and squadron leadership. These are the folks who know your business best. They are the experts in your equipment, procedures and mission. They are the people who can help you eliminate or mitigate the risk in the dangerous situations you face. This concept is at the heart of operational risk management (ORM): Identify the risks you face, act to eliminate those risks or mitigate their consequences, and forward the decision to accept additional risks up your chain of command.

There are three steps to handling dangerous situations. First, immediately take action to prevent injuries or damage to equipment. You have been trained to do the right thing. You don't need to ask permission to exercise common sense and good judgment. Second, report the situation to your immediate supervisor. Work through your chain of command to quickly eliminate the hazard at the source and effectively develop steps to mitigate associated risks. Third, report the hazard to the safety office. Safety offices identify trends, evaluate potential risk, and share this information with others who will be facing the same hazards. Finally, there are situations where there is no time to "work it out" with your supervisors. Going back to step one, sometimes the correct action is to call "knock it off." "Knock it off" is not a safety report. It is a way for anyone in the chain of command to communicate, "STOP! I'm concerned about what we are doing, I think it is unsafe, and we need to reevaluate our current course of action, now."