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CRM – The Last Line of Defense!

by Randy Mains

Imagine you’re an aviation doctor and you hold the cure to save lives in a deadly segment of helicopter aviation.  One day you learn that the FAA has finally mandated that all Part 135 operators must be administered this cure, or they cannot fly.  You gladly offer the cure, knowing it can save lives.  However, you soon discover that the parent (the helicopter company) of the patient (the flight crew) doesn’t want to give the full dose because of the added time and expense it takes to administer it.  So the helicopter company waters down the dose to near microscopic proportions, which satisfies the letter of the law, while successfully avoiding the spirit of the law.  But in their effort to save time and money, they render the cure totally useless.  It is my opinion that’s what’s happening in many HEMS programs.

The FAA knows the power that Crew Resource Management (CRM) has in preventing aircraft accidents, from the success of CRM in the airline industry.  According to a December article in the Wall Street Journal, 2012 was the safest year for the airlines on record, with 2011 being the safest year before that.  That record is attributed in no small way to a segment of CRM, where flight crews are made to feel free to report errors or unsafe practices without fear of losing their job, being punished or other retribution—the very definition of a “just safety culture.”  The airlines go so far as to share their errors and their mistakes with other airline companies.  We in the helicopter world are not there yet.  I argue we have a long way to go, given the empirical evidence.

To give you an example of what I am talking about, a large American helicopter company recently wanted to buy my CRM/AMRM course so that they could teach it to their employees.  They told me they had over 1,000 people to train, and needed an updated course like mine that is approved by all governing agencies.  Their management told me they planned to do an initial two-hour CRM course the first year, followed by a yearly four-hour course to discuss case studies.  I respectfully declined their offer, bewildered and very much disappointed that they could actually think that is how a CRM course works.  In my mind they had missed the point completely.  They had not understood the spirit of the law.

The course I teach and facilitate satisfies the requirements set out by the FAA, JAR-OPS, EU-OPS, Canadian DOT, ICAO, and CAMTS, the accrediting agency for HEMS programs in America.  How could this company think my course would still be approved if watered-down to just two hours? 

Many of the companies out there “teach” CRM on the computer.  If you remember nothing else from this article please remember this:  CRM cannot be learned from a computer-based program.  For behavior to change, CRM must be facilitated. 

Think about it:  If CRM could be taught using a computer, wouldn’t the airlines be doing it?  Instead, they devote a minimum of two days to facilitate the course to their airline staff.  Then they do Line Oriented Flight Training, which is scenario-based training in the flight simulator where pilots are given flight scenarios they could encounter on the job.  In this way, a sim instructor and CRM assessor, like I was, can determine if the crews put into practice what they learned in the facilitated CRM course.  The airlines learned early on that to change behavior and beliefs, the attendees must come up with the answer themselves.  That is only done through facilitation, not by sitting in front of a computer answering questions.

The value of facilitation was reinforced to me recently when I was giving an AMRM (Air Medical Resource Management) course at a large hospital-based flight program.  We were discussing cockpit gradient, where a steep gradient between flight crew means the captain is a virtual know-it-all, unapproachable and unwilling to hear another point of view.   A shallow gradient in the cockpit would be like flying with a Sully Sullenberger, who famously landed his stricken Air Bus 320 in the Hudson River saving all 155 lives.  A CRM instructor himself, Sullenberger, even with his vast experience, was totally approachable and open to suggestions, creating a relaxed and much safer atmosphere in the cockpit. 

My aim was to go somewhere different with the cockpit gradient concept, somewhere relevant only to a HEMS crew with a single pilot.  I hinted at the odd relationship a contract HEMS pilot might experience with the flight crew, where he or she may feel they are there to “please” the customer.  This can have a negative effect on their aviation decision-making.  It’s been known to happen before.

One very experienced flight nurse raised her hand and said, “It seems like there could be a steep cockpit gradient between the flight crew in the back with the pilot, where the medical crew could put pressure on him unnecessarily.” 

Bingo!  It was a light bulb moment for her and the rest of the class.  It was the result I was looking for.  Because she came up with the answer herself, it is something she will probably consider next time she flies.

CRM / AMRM is the last line of defense we have to prevent an aircraft accident.  The principles of CRM must be understood by everyone: from the person who refuels the aircraft all the way up the ladder to the mechanic, and from the flight crew up to middle and top management.  For CRM to work, it must be adopted and fully embraced by anyone in the organization who affects the safe outcome of every flight.  Corners cannot be cut.  The concept must not be watered down.  It is my strong belief that until we in the helicopter world truly embrace CRM as the airlines do, we will continue to see more lives needlessly lost.

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