Crew Resource Management ? Part IV

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.

Another personal example of this "fighter pilot - I am the only one that can handle it" mentality was the repeated behavior of a battalion chief that I would drive occasionally. Great guy, but he never called or allowed me to call for a second alarm. He was lavious with the requests for assistance, as long as it was a special call or task force alarm, never a second. One day I was brave enough to suggest (actual urge) that we desperately needed a second alarm at a large apartment fire that had several "jumpers" coming out of the rear windows. He responded that I needed to call for a task force, wait a few minutes and repeat the message to get another task force to get the appropriate level of help. Boy, was I confused at his directions, but I followed them to the letter. Back in quarters that same day, I asked why not call for a second? Without thinking about the response, he stated that a second get the deputy fire chief to respond and why would I want to screw up his fire ground?


CRM does not ask that the captain of the airplane give up command. In fact, it reinforces the concept that the captain has the legal and complete authority to fly the aircraft as he or she sees fit. The process does not turn the cockpit into a majority rules, vote your conscious type system. CRM simply states that good leaders must always be able to effective use effective input from the crew that supports him or her on the flight line. The same rule needs to be applied to commanding of fire - rescue incidents. Good I/C's can take appropriate input and use this information to make the best decision for the circumstances. Excellent I/C's develop a system to seek out the critically needed information to make the best call. The leadership element simply asks the pilot/incident commander to set aside their egos and use the human capabilities that are readily available. The final decision is the commander's, no argument, but enlighten bosses know how too effective use all types of inputs to manage the system.

As I was flying across our country recently, I had a interesting experience while waiting for the plane to taxi out to the runway. The main cabin door had been shut for take off and the final check- off had started in the cockpit. Without warning a very loud bang occurred and the plane rocked back and forth (even more noise and movement that the Atlanta ground crew can make). The next action that I observed, was the pilot leaving the cockpit (real trouble I guessed) and helping the flight attendant open the already secured doorway. After about six or seven minutes the pilot returned and the first officer left without mush delay. Once the cockpit crew was back in their places and the doorway once again secured, the public address system clicked open. The captain announced that the auxiliary air conditioning system high pressure hose had broken and was wiping about the body of the aircraft. He went on to say that he and then the co-pilot had visually inspected the entire exterior of the plane. He than indicated that no damage had been caused by the failed hose, the only results of the failure were the noise and the abrupt rocking. The good news was, we were ready to taxi out to be number twenty something for take-off on runway 27.

What a great demonstration of the CRM system at work.

It seems like the culture of the fire - rescue service is, often times, the greatest barrier to be able to improve operational conditions. We must identify and use the "best practices" for our industry or at least give them honest chance for success. The crew resource management process is one that we must take seriously if we are going to improve firefighter safety statistics. I would submit that this concept is not a "flash in the pan" or a fade. The airlines took on this mission in December of 1978 and have not looked back. Consider that most incidents involving firefighter injuries and/or fatalities, the greatest contributing factor is human error. It just makes good, common sense that we must use tools that are available to improve human performance and lower these alarming statistics.