BY Kevin Means
SAN DIEGO POLICE DEPARTMENT
When I was asked to write an article about how an airborne law enforcement training program should function under a Safety Management System (SMS), my first thought was that it would be easy. Simply describe how a training program should be structured to evaluate and minimize risk while maximizing mission effectiveness. As I tried to describe the concept in words, however, I found myself referring to other areas of our unit’s operation to explain the process – Safety, Unit Management etc. The fact is training is not an isolated, independent component under the SMS concept. Training must be integrated with other areas of a unit’s operation to effectively manage risk.
Too often, aircrews encounter missions that they have never been trained to perform. They may attempt such missions under intense pressure, either with the best of intentions in mind, or for the hero factor. If they succeed, the uninformed may publicly or privately consider them heroes. If they fail, everyone points their fingers at them and the agency may be exposed to significant liability. In the worst case scenario, someone gets injured or killed and the unit gets dissolved. But even if the crew succeeds, management has a responsibility to objectively evaluate the incident – not for the purpose of punishing someone (although accountability is a vital component of the Safety Management System), but for the purpose of evaluating the incident from a safety, training and policy perspective. Failure to do so can reinforce in the minds of personnel that it is acceptable to perform missions without the proper training or equipment, and it is acceptable to take unnecessary risks. Recurrent problems often point to a breakdown in management’s oversight of the unit. This can destroy the confidence of personnel in management’s ability to do the right thing. Identifying unnecessary risks and risk-takers is essential to reducing the potential for accidents.
When an airborne law enforcement unit entertains the idea of performing a new mission, training will obviously be an important part of that mission. But long before the unit begins to train, important questions need to be asked and answered. We need to know not only if we are capable of performing the mission, but we must ask ourselves if we should be performing the mission. Are there other reliable resources available that are better equipped and trained, or would the aviation unit be providing a valuable service to the agency and community by incorporating the mission? Does the agency support the mission? Top level management must authorize and support each mission that the unit is tasked with performing. There may be political, liability or coffee-spewing financial reasons for not authorizing a mission. But if the answers to these questions are yes, then we need to know how we’re going to perform the mission – that means training.
When a unit incorporates a new mission there must be a mechanism in place to develop a training program. That mechanism is part of the Safety Management System. An effective training program should include input from not only Training personnel, but from Safety, Maintenance, Unit Management and perhaps other personnel with relevant expertise and experience. This is an effective way of evaluating risk from multiple perspectives. I assure you that someone will think of something that the training staff didn’t. The process can almost be described as problem-solving before there’s a problem.
The training program must also include objective performance standards that meet or exceed industry standards. This is the best way to help trainers objectively evaluate the skills and abilities of unit members. Objective Performance Standards also help trainers modify the training syllabus to meet the specific needs of the unit.
There is almost never a reason to reinvent the wheel here. If there was ever a time to learn from the mistakes and successes of others, this is it. Contact other agencies that have a record of safely and successfully performing the same mission, and ask them for help. Or hire professional trainers with subject matter expertise and work with them to create a structured training program that is tailor-fit to meet the needs of the unit. Policies and procedures must be developed that prioritize safety, but just because a mission has a relatively high risk factor, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be performed. That’s what risk management is all about – identifying, understanding and minimizing risk through training and education – making the go, no-go decisions with good judgment and a thorough understanding of the associated risks.
Training for Infrequent Missions
Just because a particular mission does not occur frequently, doesn’t mean that it shouldn’t be performed. The decision on whether or not to incorporate a particular mission should be based on the totality of circumstances for individual agencies. But if a mission is authorized and supported by the agency (financially and philosophically), and unit members are appropriately trained, equipped and proficient, the unit can be a more valuable asset to the agency and community. The commitment to proficiency, however, must be ongoing and clear, and training is the key to proficiency.
In-house training is a cost-effective method of providing training to unit members. From an emergency-procedures perspective, there’s not much room for interpretation. The techniques of performing autorotations in ASTARs, for example are very similar from agency to agency for obvious reasons. From a law enforcement perspective, however, the tactics of different units can vary wildly from agency to agency – even though agencies perform the same mission with the same aircraft and equipment in similar environments. Most people usually associate the tactical aspects of airborne law enforcement with the success or failure of missions, but tactics have a significant affect on aviation safety.
Ineffective or improper tactics have contributed to the cause of several accidents. Hovering, or flying very low and slow while searching for armed suspects, for example, gives bad guys something to shoot at. A surprising number of law enforcement aircraft and crewmembers have been hit by small arms fire, and crashed. And the NTSB accident database describes a fatal law enforcement accident in which the pilot was taught to fly missions in an unsafe manner. He was taught to arrive at burglary alarms at 200 feet AGL so the TFO could conduct a FLIR search. The low time pilot did exactly what he was taught to do, and as soon as he turned downwind he encountered a loss of tail rotor effectiveness. With no altitude to recover, he crashed. Both crewmembers were killed.
The fact is it’s not unusual to find aircrews performing missions today in exactly the same manner that they were performing them twenty years ago. It’s even more ironic when one considers that the agency may unknowingly be exposing themselves to unnecessary risk while operating with the most sophisticated technology available – technology that when used efficiently, can enable them to operate safer and more effectively.
This can be a difficult situation to overcome for a variety of reasons. Leadership is the key, but leadership doesn’t always come from management (although it makes the process a lot easier when it does). Under an effective Safety Management System, a unit’s training program is always being evaluated to ensure that missions are performed as safely and effectively as they could be. It starts by understanding the risks that aircrews are exposed to when performing missions. For example, while orbiting calls, do we routinely fly so low that the likelihood of performing a successful autorotation would be in question if our engine failed? If so, we need to ask ourselves why. Could we incorporate different tactics to minimize our exposure to that risk and still be effective? Are our weather minimums adequate? Inadvertent flight into IMC continues to be a killer, so we should ask ourselves if our weather minimums provide us with an adequate margin of safety. We recently changed ours to be more conservative. We could have mandated instrument proficiency, but that would have required an unrealistic amount of ongoing flight time for each pilot. In the end we decided to incorporate unusual attitude recovery training, and we reduced our exposure to inadvertent IMC by raising our weather minimums. Yes, that means we won’t be able to go to a few calls, but I’ll go home at the end of the night.
Weather minimums should be clearly defined in a unit’s Operations Manual with no room for interpretation. When risks are identified, and policies are written to reduce exposure to those risks, aircrews must be held accountable. The first time someone willingly violates such a policy and nothing is done, it sends a clear message to everyone that there is no policy. This bleeds into every other segment of the unit’s operation.
A Safety Management System isn’t just a new title; it’s an overall process that ties all aspects of a unit together for the purpose of identifying and minimizing risk.