As a foreign commercial airliner was climbing out to its assigned cruising altitude, the following translated discussion was captured on the cockpit voice recorder. The first officer pointed out to the captain that the flaps on the plane were still extended at a fifteen-degree angle. The pilot did not give an understandable response to this statement. Then, a second warning was issued by the co-pilot that the plane's airspeed was too slow and again the pilot made an unintelligible, grunt type sound. The co-pilot issues a desperate verbal warning a third time. He indicates that the plane's flaps are extended, the airspeed is too slow and that its altitude is too low. The pilot breaks his frustrated silence, by telling the first officer to "Shut up and look out the window. If I want you opinion on how to fly this plane I will ask for it." Within two minutes the plane flies to a high impact crash into the side of a mountain, killing all on board. The captain's lack of leadership (human factors) is listed as the principle cause of the plane crash that unnecessarily killed many innocent people.
The commercial aviation industry's crew resource management (CRM) process identifies four specific competencies that crewmembers must abide (live) by to simply avoid crashes. Communications, leadership/teamwork, task allocation and critical decision making are the "big four" elements that make up the airline industry's CRM system. Interestingly, I proposed that there are amazing parallels between commanding an incident and commanding a jetliner. This is the fourth article in a multi-part series that looks at how the fire-rescue service can adopt CRM to improve firefighter safety and overall street level operations. CRM leadership skills will be our topic of discussion in this article as they relate to human factors performance at emergency alarms.
One only needs to consider what is at risk when a commercial plane takes off from the runway to begin appreciating the similarities between our professions. For starters, there are usually a lot of souls on board an aircraft that makes the life risk element very significant. Among the lives that are placed in harms way is the entire flight crew (this prospect adds an interesting, personal dimension to preventing a crash). If the plane were to go down in a populated area, the lives of still more people would likely be lost. Property loss can be outrageously high, considering the expense of the airplane and collateral property damage that generally occurs. Negative environmental impact does happen when a plane crashes, especially if the leaking fluids make it into waterways. Finally, the good name and business reputation of the air carrier is at stake when a crash takes place. The risks are exactly the same in our business, so therefore, we need to take advantage of the human factors performance improvement research that the airline industry has developed.
As was painfully pointed out in the opening vignette, the pilot was too stubborn or perhaps too egotistical to simply take advice from his own co-pilot (team member). Does this dilemma sound familiar to anyone out there in the fire - rescue service? Have you every heard statements like, "need I remind you that there are five trumpets on this collar" or maybe "what part of I'm in charge that you don't understand"? I can remember working for a colorful old captain that would boldly state at lineup, "all working fires must be knocked down before the chief arrives" and he was serious about this stance, even though battalion headquarters was just about two miles away from our company.