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Aviation Safety Management Systems

When we read reports of law enforcement officers killed in the line of duty, we often can see a very obvious and deadly mistake. While we think, I would never do that, it begs the question, Why did they do it? We train hard and officer safety is always preached but are we really looking at the processes and procedures to see what we can do better?

Over the years, aviation operators have talked about the accident chain and how a string of incidents or minor events can collectively add up and be the cause for an aviation accident. Take for example an Eastern L1011 that crashed in the Everglades because of a defective 15 cent light bulb. A perfectly good airplane was flown into the ground because of the process. Safety management Systems goes beyond the traditional, what did the pilot do? to examining organizational norms and cultures. It examines all processes and procedures to try to pinpoint weaknesses in the chain and correct them.

Traditionally, most aviation organizations have a safety officer and/or safety department. These were the persons charged with and responsible for safety. Is there a safety issue? Let the safety people sort it out!

Recognizing the very apparent pitfalls and weaknesses of this approach, most aviation organizations have graduated to a safety management system. The safety management system holds senior management and line managers accountable for safety issues and concerns. Safety becomes a core value and safety becomes everyone's job.

SMS is defined as a coordinated, comprehensive set of processes designed to direct and control resources to optimally manage safety. SMS takes unrelated processes and builds them into one coherent structure to achieve a higher level of safety performance, making safety management an integral part of overall risk management. SMS is based on leadership and accountability. It requires proactive hazard identification, risk management, information control, auditing and training. It also includes incident and accident investigation and analysis.

The four pillars of a good SMS are safety policy, safety risk management, safety assurance and safety promotion. The Safety management toolkit developed by the Airborne Law Enforcement Association describes each of these pillars. Safety policy is that every type of management system must define policies, procedures and organizational structures to accomplish its goals. An SMS must have policies and procedures in place that explicitly describe responsibility, authority, accountability and expectations. Most importantly, safety must be a core value.

Safety Risk Management is a formal system of hazard identification, and management is fundamental in controlling an acceptable level of risk. A well-designed risk management system describes operational processes across department and organizational boundaries, identifies key hazards and measures them, methodically assesses risk, and implements controls to mitigate said risk. Safety Assurance is that policies, process measures, assessments and controls are in place. The organization must incorporate regular data collection, analysis, assessment a management review to assure safety goals are being achieved. Solid change management processes must be in place to assure the system is able to adapt. Safety Promotion specifies that the organization must continually promote, train and communicate safety as a core value with practices that support a sound safety culture.

Applications to Law Enforcement

How many agencies could benefit from approaching officer safety in this manner? Rather than have safety preached by police academy instructors and field training officers, safety would become an ingrained part of the culture without the possibility of doing it any other way. All agency processes and procedures would be examined with the objective of making sure they are absolutely driven by the safety objective. All personnel have a sacred responsibility - not a particular officer or department.

The Safety Management system provides for the following: compliance is integral to safety management, it provides an effective interface for safety management, SMS completes the system safety circle and finally, SMS is a set of decision making processes for senior management, line supervisors and line officers.

SMS is not a requirement for a new department or title. It is not a substitute for oversight or regulatory compliance. SMS is not expensive and the benefits are measurable and tangible. If patrol cars are being broadsided at scenes to the tune of $2000 per vehicle and five vehicles are being struck a year the department is paying around $10,000/year. If the SMS system identifies better vehicle positioning, the improved use of traffic cones and flares as solutions, all which would use existing equipment the cost would be nothing except a department memo and perhaps a brief roll call training raising officer awareness. Benefits? A saving of $10,000.

The Bottom Line

The goal of each and every law enforcement is the same. To return home safely. The aviation community has designed and implemented a proven model to accelerate this process and many agencies would benefit tremendously by implementing an officer safety management system.