The complex, dynamic & dangerous aerial/ground Firefighting environment [NIOSH] may benefit from SMS

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Centers for Disease Control’s National Institute for Occupational Safety and Health (NIOSH) issued a very insightful analysis of the complex and multi-faceted fire-fighting environment. In response to the NOISH report, a local fire-fighting aircraft operator, Mr. Daniel Snyder[i] COO of Neptune Aviation, commented that applying Safety Management System to this integrated approach to dealing with forest conflagrations might be advised.

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[i]
There are likely a lot of readers who may think that DanSnyder is a controversial owner of an NFL team which has a non-PC team name. This one’s no relationship to him. This Mr. Snyder puts out, not fans, fires!

 

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The NIOSH report, surprisingly, found that among the 298 forest fire-fighting fatalities, the aviation personnel (Pilots, copilots, and flight engineers) constituted largest number of deaths between 2000 and 2013. There were 42 aircraft involved in these accidents and 53 of the fatalities, the highest categories, were from the flight crews. [#2 vehicle incidents {including rollovers and being hit by a vehicle} and medical events {heart attacks}; #4 burn-overs or entrapment by the forest fire itself]. Fifty-five percent of the fatal aircraft crashes involved airplanes and 45% were helicopters. Three firefighting aircraft were involved in midair collisions.

NIOSH determined that leading causes of fatal aircraft crashes were

  • engine, structure, or component failure (24%);
  • pilot loss of control (24%); failure to maintain clearance from terrain, water, or objects (20%); and
  • hazardous weather (15%).

To reduce fatalities from aviation-related wildland firefighting activities, stringent safety guidelines need to be followed during all phases of firefighting, including training exercises. Crew resource management techniques, which use all available resources, information, equipment, and personnel to achieve safe and efficient flight operations, can be applied to firefighting operations.

Based on its thoughtful review (NIOSH provided a lot of data), this accident prevention organization made the following recommendations:

  • the most stringent safety guidelines need to be followed during all phases of firefighting, including training exercises, to help firefighters, flight crews, and fire managers,
  • Crew resource management techniques, which use all available resources, information, equipment, and personnel to achieve safe and efficient flight operations, can be applied to firefighting operations.
  • fire managers should
    • assess risk,
    • limit exposure,
    • share information, and
    • enhance teamwork when using aircraft to control wildfires.

That constitutes a great data base from which to launch Mr. Snyder’s proposed SMS. That analytical discipline begins with the principle that the team to be involved in this safety assessment constitutes a 360° review. In examining all of the risks of the aerial/ground attack of forest fires, it is obvious that pilots, co-pilots, mechanics, schedulers, dispatchers, weather staff, SPOTTERS (?), COMMUNICATIONS, and all of the other airlines’ management (personnel, legal, AIRCRAFT ACQUISITION, C level executives) will participate. Equally important all of the fire-fighting staff should be invited to these sessions.

COMMUNICATIONS and SPOTTERS were capitalized because the NIOSH cited the need for better tactical coordination between the air and ground. The airline and the various ground-based functions need to create an integrated technology which allows instant and constant talk about the conditions and needs.

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AIRCRAFT ACQUISITION was not mentioned in the NIOSH report, but the NTSB has found that the existing fleet (several of the above pictures show the age of the planes being used) relies on planes which have gone beyond their useful economic lives in other commercial services. Some of the only new fire-fighting airplanes may come from Russia or China. This SMS organization would benefit from representatives from the US aircraft manufacturing industry. One of the most rewarding solutions may be to create aircraft well-suited for these special flights.

This SMS assignment will require expert guidance. The breadth of the participants will be a challenge for the facilitator getting to a common vocabulary; for the representatives of each field have their own perspectives, jargons, analytics, etc. Perhaps a greater task will be to evaluate the concerns for aviation safety against the exigencies of the fire. Adding risk to the parameters of flight might add to the likelihood of extinguishing the blaze, for example. An outside consultant would be best equipped to help in these difficult numerical, interpersonal and analytical assignments.

The news these days is full of stories about horrendous fires destroying forests and communities, as well as deaths. This NOISH study points out some sources of the fatalities in these operations. Mr. Snyder correctly pointed out that SMS is the appropriate methodology to establish a prioritized set of actions which are most likely to reduce the fatality and accident rates as well as provide a permanent mechanism which will project a constant curve of improvement.

 

ARTICLE: Aircraft narrowly lead fatalities list in wildland fire study

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