Note: Although this article is primarily intended for Aerial Fire Fighting and Base Jumping, it could be useful in other front-line activities requiring human skills over safety technological features as a survival mechanism.
In my opinion, safety should not fall under a binary or dichotomic system. Good or bad. Dangerous or safe. Heaven and hell world in opposites kind of reality.
Neither can be accurately categorized on a matrix using only three colors; red, yellow, and green.
Risk should not be understood as something objective or rational, but intersubjective. The quality and quantity of training, combined with hormetic doses of exposure, influence, modify, and individualize safety margins, reducing danger, and putting risks into perspective.
Thanks to ICAO Annex 19, Safety Management Systems, and their matrices, we are more knowledgeable and aviation transport, safer. It truly helps to see the big picture and to put you on the right path, but it is not an absolute term. The label “Safety”, per se, means very little.
Neglecting S.M.S. increases the chances of misfortune, but thinking that only by adhering to one, and replicating modern aviation standards will fix all issues, in all activities, makes it dangerous too. It’s more complex than what it might seem, there is not a single concept of Safety standard to all activities, rigid, and infallible. We need to get even further.
In certain activities, as aerial fire fighting, or base jumping, where technology and systems redundancy are not always available and the time frame could be small, we should make an effort to get back and retain those abilities and instant reactions that are basic to humans.
In the technological race to mitigate “human error” with the intervention of machines, albeit there have been improvements in most aspects, we have neglected some abilities that are basic to humans. Humorously and friendly, this video explains the potential long-run consequences of burying the heuristic way by the academic-automated way in the aviation world.
A personal example of not relying on technology as the normal operation is when I jump out from a perfectly good airplane, just for fun. I know there is a safety feature that should deploy my parachute automatically if I can`t do it (and it has saved many lives). But the only one I trust when the ground gets closer is my right hand. The day you rely on the automated and get complacent, it will fail and it will bite you. Murphy’s law.
“By then, men will have forgotten how to fly; they will be passengers on machines whose conductors are carefully promoted to familiarity with labeled buttons, and in whose minds the knowledge of the sky and the wind and the weather will be as extraneous as passing fiction.” – Beryl Markham, 1942 – Woman aviator author of “West with night.”
Aerial Fire-Fighting is the least standard and the most volatile, eventful, unorganized, and variable aviation activity I have tried to date. Each mission is different, from the water source to the fire characteristics and surrounding terrain.
Besides, we need to make hundreds of micro-decisions during a mission. There are no airways to follow, autopilot, procedures for every phase of the flight, or a colleague to assist us with specific tasks. When flying low level by hand, it’s obvious there is no safe way to read a checklist. Every detail, like headings, altitudes, and airspaces, needs to be worked out manually while alone commanding the aircraft. There is no rest for the mind or the body, as the workload could imply as much as one water landing and one drop on the fire every 3-5 min.
Most scenarios encountered need real-time assessment, and most of the time, we do not have time for the rational prefrontal cortex to take over on the decision making process. Sometimes we only have time to rely on the short term emotional amygdala, which helps to recognize, by storing and associating similar events in the future.
If you are on short final to drop and a helicopter appears from the smoke and crosses your path, there is no time for critical thinking, checklist, and analysis; our brain needs to be used to work fast and accurately as second nature.
Same on a low height base jump. As my friend Jonathan Trango explains in this article, success in performing such a demanding jump largely depends on jump preparation. We use all our available critical thinking to perform a risk assessment. Still, once you are on edge, there are only 1.5 to 5 seconds to hit the ground. Again we depend on previous preparation and intuition to react quickly
The equivalent of our ancestors facing a predator in nature. Flight or fight mode, but there is no time to ask the lion how is he doing! 🙂
The good news is that this is trainable as we will show below.
For some; crazy, for others; amazing.
For me, a frontline safety exercise after a risk assessment and dedicated training; an optimal state of conscience where hard work, both physical as well as mental, fires up and performance goes through the roof. The so-called flow concept.
As you can see, as much as we like matrices, formulas, and want to be compliant with existing systems, not all of the above-mentioned fits squarely and perfectly into a Standard Operational Procedure or Safety Management Manual. I got the feeling we are still missing something. If we want to stay in the frontline, we need an “enhanced view”.
Frontline Safety Management goes way beyond; it’s an individual life philosophy that nurtures from the theoretical safety approach and blends it with the heuristic method
I like to call it Doxastic Safety and it’s founded on a few well-defined trainable principles:
The Doxastic Model:
1-People. Human Capital awareness: By recruiting, retaining, and creating:
Depending on the activity and task to be carried out, individuals must possess a series of characteristics and skills to cope with the activity in a safe and efficient manner. Some skills can be learned during any phase of life. Other skills are learned as part of a joint plan working on both fine and gross motor skills, along with activities encouraging multiple intelligence at an early stage. Otherwise, the older, the harder. Therefore, background and learning capabilities should be thoroughly assessed when getting people on board for any project where performance and safety matter. Once you fill your bus with the right people in the right seats, it becomes less a question of where you’re headed—and instead, how far you can go.
Thinking that because we do it everyone can do it, is a common mistake.
If it is a hobby, trying outside of your area of expertise, could be fun and highly advisable. When it comes to a job that needs such abilities as a daily survival mechanism; not having developed sufficient spatial or kinaesthetic intelligence, showing inadequate coordination between limbs (hands and feet – gross motor control), reduced emotional intelligence, or not enough critical thinking, might end up on an adverse Safety outcome.
I did not develop musical intelligence while I was at a cognitive plasticity stage, and no matter how much I train now with the best musical software, my fingers don’t stop looking like sausages whacking the keyboard. It is fun… as long as I don’t have to play the piano live in the Opera in front of the crowd?
2-High Level Training:
Risk should not be understood as something objective or rational, but intersubjective. There are dangerous scenarios socially accepted, and other safer scenarios that are not accepted due to unconscious incompetence (you don’t know what you don’t know). What is risky for some, it might not be a challenge for others who genetically are more prone to the activity and have mastered their survival skills, within the right environment, under the appropriate guidance.
An acrobat from Cirque Du Soleil can operate in a safe manner performing multiple stunts at 10m above the ground, safer than an individual with no specialization performing a simple backflip on the floor.
Sean D. Tucker can safely operate his complex aerobatic biplane Challenger during an airshow routine, whereas a recently graduated Private Pilot during a simple flight in a Cessna 152 can get in trouble.
Marc Márquez is probably safer competing at 350km/h at Qatar racing circuit than a 16 years old youngster crossing Madrid city center on a scooter. Besides, not everyone can be acrobats from Cirque Du Soleil, not Sean D. Tucker, nor Marc Marquez (sorry Valentino, as much as you get mad about it, at whatever we do, there will always be someone who is more talented, skillful and will perform better. Its life and its statistics on an 8 billion people world).
High-level training performance is based on:
Repetition per se is not the answer. Repetition makes permanent, not perfect. While racking up hundreds of unstructured solo flights will help you learn a few things about the aircraft, and the operation, it will not necessarily put you on the path to high-level piloting.
A high-performance instruction program is based on deliberate practice, which is the idea that the quality of your training can be as important as the quantity of your training. The number of hours you have amassed is not as significant as what you did on those hours. While regular practice might include mindless repetitions, deliberate practice requires focused attention and is conducted with the specific goal of improving performance, under a purposeful and systematic approach.
“Live as if you were to die tomorrow, train as if you were to live forever”
“I do not much about luck, but the harder I train the luckier I get” – Ingemar Stenmark
Hierarchy of competence:
When you learn a new skill, the beginning tends to be the most frustrating part. Often, you‟re not sure what you should be doing exactly, or how you should be doing it. This applies to everything from when you start playing a new sport, flying a new aircraft, or when you try speaking a new foreign language.
Luckily, the process of becoming better at new skills is relatively predictable and can be broken down into different stages. Once you understand how this process works, you will understand why the beginning is so hard, and you will be able to identify your position in the learning process. This will make you more aware of your abilities, more conscious of your learning, and will help you learn new skills more efficiently, and with more motivation.
The dose makes the poison. It is not safer who is less exposed, it is safer who does more, who more and better trains, and who is exposes consciously and competently, to an optimal amount of stressors. The one who hides from stressors is not the safest, very much to the contrary, a secured status is connected with doing more in general. In other words, the one who trains more and better by exposing himself consciously and adequately (see Maslow’s Pyramid of Competence) to a certain degree of stress and discomfort, most likely will perform more reliably than the one who remains in the “safety bubble” or comfort zone.
The opposite of fragile is not robust; it is anti-fragile. Something that simply resists certain stress or volatility is robust. Something that is strengthened from that same stress or volatility is anti-fragile.
I genuinely believe in an anti-fragile training system, that strengthens and nurtures from a continuous dose of micro errors of little consequences, while performed in a controlled environment under the right supervision and guidance (see concepts Fragility, Robustness, and Anti-fragility by Taleb).
In the long run, training the right humans in the right manner will be more beneficial than merely seeking for protection on a generic and theoretical “Masterpiece” S.O.P. Manual thinking everyone could fit in.
Another “spot on” Disney Wall-E brilliant scene. that deserves to be brought to light. The S.O.P. The masterpiece manual, the theory, would not save him this time…:)
The intensity and frequency of training, together with the environment in which we perform, are determining variables in the progress equation.
Sometimes, it will be necessary to train or perform at a high intensity and sometimes at a slower pace. In other scenarios, we should train frequently, and after hard training periods, it will be essential to take a good rest to recover both physically and mentally. Optimum stressors in a variety of scenarios are our allies.
“Why using this water source (to load water fire fighting), which is 2000ft higher, where the way in and the way out are tricky, and distance available is limited? Isn’t it easier to continue working from the nice lake we have just a couple of miles ahead?”
I have been asked this question quite a few times.
Short answer: “For your safety, even if you don’t understand it right now”.
Long answer; in a debriefing, explaining the graph shown above as follows:
In correspondence with the rise in exposure, performance rises progressively until reaching an optimal point that we could call “Overreaching point or Sweetspot”. That’s where ideally we want to be. From there on, performance and Safety begin a dangerous downfall where we don’t want to lean over too much. We just want to know it’s there.
The key is identifying the point of inflection where more stops being better and try to maintain the balance at the apex of the curve. If you have reached that point of implication and commitment, probably between other remarkable attributes and traits, you will have a reflective vision of whether you are about to start descending the dangerous fall. Looking at ourselves from the inside can help us know our limits, and it may help us navigate the risk management zone as we try to do as much as possible while staying protected.
This safety approach is my personal belief, its commitment, it’s real and has kept me safe and made me stronger in life while constantly exposed to what is considered a hostile environment by most.
If I haven’t tried myself in the real world, if I cannot lead by example, I won’t talk nor teach people about it.
THE GREATEST DANGER IN LIFE, IS NOT TO TAKE THE ADVENTURE
“Those that are pushing into territories that are yet to be conquered, we need them to tell us what is possible and truly explore what is not yet known.”
Stay safe and don’t forget to have fun; life is too short!