Tough and Competent

911, what is the address of the emergency?

Fifty-one years ago (January 27, 1967), Apollo 1 burned on the pad and killed three astronauts: Virgil "Gus" Grissom, Ed White, and Roger Chaffee.

NASA - as they do - convened an accident investigation board to see what went wrong and how it could be fixed. Before that board finished, a mere four days after the accident, Flight Director Gene Kranz assembled his flight team and made a brief speech. That speech is perhaps one of the finest examples of leadership I have ever read:

Spaceflight will never tolerate carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. Somewhere, somehow, we screwed up. It could have been in design, build, or test. Whatever it was, we should have caught it. We were too gung ho about the schedule and we locked out all of the problems we saw each day in our work.

Every element of the program was in trouble and so were we. The simulators were not working, Mission Control was behind in virtually every area, and the flight and test procedures changed daily. Nothing we did had any shelf life. Not one of us stood up and said, "Dammit, stop!" I don't know what Thompson's committee will find as the cause, but I know what I find. We are the cause! We were not ready! We did not do our job. We were rolling the dice, hoping that things would come together by launch day, when in our hearts we knew it would take a miracle. We were pushing the schedule and betting that the Cape would slip before we did.

From this day forward, Flight Control will be known by two words: "Tough" and "Competent". Tough means we are forever accountable for what we do or what we fail to do. We will never again compromise our responsibilities. Every time we walk into Mission Control we will know what we stand for. Competent means we will never take anything for granted. We will never be found short in our knowledge and in our skills. Mission Control will be perfect.

When you leave this meeting today you will go to your office and the first thing you will do there is to write "Tough and Competent" on your blackboards. It will never be erased. Each day when you enter the room these words will remind you of the price paid by Grissom, White, and Chaffee. These words are the price of admission to the ranks of Mission Control.
Hell of a mission statement, isn't it? Nevermind the mission statement ... hell of a leadership statement. Gene Kranz recognized the power of a team. "We" pervades that speech - as well it should. Not until he's issuing marching orders does he say "you"; everything prior to that is joint ownership of the mistakes that occurred. No fingerpointing. No blame game. We screwed up. That, ladies and gents, is the mark of a leader, not a manager.

Strike "Mission Control" and sub in "dispatch" and consider it. We are, indeed, expected to perform with perfection. We should, indeed, strive to attain it. We shouldn't be found short in our knowledge or skills. Nevermind the one in the white shirt on the pedestal in the corner - we should take enough pride in our own job and have enough respect for our customers and ourselves to want to excel at all times.

I don't claim to be a perfect dispatcher. I make mistakes all the time. I try hard to make them one-time mistakes.

Our job tends to be one of a command structure - there are bosses and minions, and the correct answer to an order is, "Yes Sir." ... almost always.

Back when I was a hose-dragger, there were a few things drilled into me during my training, and continually through my career. One of them that continues to ride on my shoulder is this: We are ALL responsible for safety. ANYONE can - and should - stand up and say, "Dammit, stop!" when the situation requires it.

I'm well aware that many agencies don't have the kind of leadership structure that tolerates such things. You and I can change that from the bottom up. Be the example. Be the one making the right decisions for the right reasons. If you need to stray from your agency guidelines, have a solid argument in place when they come asking questions about why you did Y instead of X. If you have the right relationship with your supervisor, ask for five minutes outside when something doesn't make sense, and ask why he chose to do this, when you were thinking that. He may have a solid reason that makes sense. Be open. Listen. Learn.

Being willing to stand up may cost you your job someday. I am entirely aware of that. I don't care to lose my job, either - but I will never place my job over stopping something that may hurt or kill one of my team.

Be tough. Be competent. Be a leader.

Call me back right away if anything changes.


Interoperability And You

911, what is the address of the emergency?

Oh, my, what fun. Yep, that's one of the big buzzwords up there in the title.


Sixteen years ago today, it wasn't a word anyone knew. After the attacks of 9/11, it was the word to know in the public safety world. Being able to talk to each other was a hard lesson, learned in the hardest of ways. Around the World Trade Center, the Pentagon, and a field in Pennsylvania, agencies couldn't talk to each other. NYPD, FDNY, PAPD, DCFEMS, DCPD, and on and on... all were working on their own frequencies, in their own bands.

Over the last decade and a half, any public safety agency doing a radio upgrade has had to work interoperability into it... and that brings some sweet sweet federal money into the pot. At a previous agency I worked for, we upgraded from a multi-site UHF system to a multi-tower trunked digital 800MHz system... and it was amazing. Talk across the county on a handheld? Absolutely!

Unfortunately, like many agencies, we took the approach of "We can, so we should." Talk groups were "free", so let's make dozens of them. Let's have the bus drivers talking to the police talking to the plow drivers talking to the fire department ... etc.

It took a year or two of constant pushback from the people actually using the system on a daily basis to get things back to manageable. The ability to talk between groups was still there, but it was at least a little more discreet.

And then, last week, with my current agency, I went to a multi-agency tabletop exercise. I went as a COM-L, and it was eye-opening. We collected a portable radio from each agency in attendance and started mapping out the interagency talk groups they had available. We ignored the "local" channels, which was good - one of the agencies there had over 800 talk groups programmed into their walkie-talkies.

Eight. Hundred. Every interop channel in the state was in those radios, plus several in the cross-border area.

After we worked out our communications plan, we went back to the group setting and went through an exercise critique. The point was made by another COM-L that field units needed to know how to get their radio to the correct channel, or having all these wonderful interop channels was kind of pointless.

A gentleman with brass on his collar on the far side of the room piped up and said, "No, that's what we've got you for. We hand you the radio and say 'find it'."

I looked around the room and decided to retort... "Sir, with respect, no. That doesn't work. Look around in this room. There are fifty of you and five communication folks here. You will be standing in line ten deep while we figure out your individual radios and find where a channel is, AND we have to figure out if things are labeled consistently across agencies. (They aren't.) Beyond that, your communications folks are in a dispatch center, or on call, and we won't be there for an hour or two or six while things are getting messy."

He had no clear answer for that... and this is not about "standing up to the brass". It's about making sure interoperability works if you need it, and that your radios and field personnel are well-acquainted. If your interagency plan is "Everyone goes to Region Ops 2", that's great - IF everyone knows just where that is in their radio.

If you hear through the grapevine that your agency is setting up a large scale exercise, try to be part of it. Make notes. Make points. Learn who to talk to with concerns, and don't be afraid to say "No, chief, that isn't going to work like that." ... but have a plan B ready.

Call me back right away if anything changes.


Field Notes

Before I was dispatching, I was a nozzle nut. My department wasn't real big - we ran about a thousand calls a year - but it was all volunteer. We ran a lot of odd calls, too. Our district was a wild mix of suburban, commercial, rural, and industrial, with a divided highway to spice it up.

I ended up with a lot of memories floating around in my head, and some of them come to the forefront now and then with no apparent reason. This morning, one of them did just that.

I was at home, having a quiet evening to myself while my wife was out at practice. Our small garden apartment backed up to the highway, and the steady drone of traffic was pure background noise. I was just settling in for the night, had just opened a beer and fired up the PlayStation, and heard a loud bang from somewhere outside. I looked out the window, shrugged, and went back to the video game.

About two minutes later, the fire pager tripped from the bedroom. Two-car head-on wreck, in the southbound lanes. I looked at my barely-touched beer and headed out the door.

The station I responded from was a small one - we ran a rescue engine there, and I rarely had a crew on the truck with me. I shrugged into my gear as the doors went up, and headed out as soon as they were closing behind the engine.

As I hit the overpass for the highway, I slowed down and checked out the scene - and then went the wrong way on the highway instead of making the loop around to the next exit and approaching with traffic. The sheriff's department was already on scene and I could see traffic was stopped on the far side.

I pulled up at the same time as the paramedic fly car from the local ambulance service, and was getting the truck set for whatever needed doing (pump gear, circulate, drop chocks, etc). I was coming around the back of the engine and ran headlong into the paramedic, who just looked at me and said, "We need extrication. Now." I looked at what was in front of me. A mid-size sedan going one direction had gone head-on into a minivan the other direction. No deflection, no skid marks, nothing - they had gone square into each other at highway speed.

I opened the tailboard compartment and pulled out the Hurst combitool, fired it up and set the tips in the driver's door of the sedan. I had barely started to twist on the control when the medic grabbed my shoulder and said, "Forget it. Get the passenger."

I lugged the power unit and tool around the back of the car and popped that door. The passenger was very much awake and not happy with us; he had some choice words about what we were doing to the car. His foot was pinned under the dash, and by the time I had his door pried open and out of the way we had some more help on the scene. I had barely started to roll the dash up (a good trick; the relieving cut made in the bottom of the A-post is a pain with a combi-tool) when he levitated out of the car - and promptly spit on the firefighter next to me. *sigh*

The heavy rescue was with us by then, with a full complement of tools and the people to use them. I let them take on the extrication of the driver in the other vehicle - his minivan was pretty well beat and I was still working on the car. I caught my breath for a minute and started looking around. It's sometimes odd things that stick in your mind during these calls. I remember looking in the back seat of the sedan and seeing bags of groceries that had been in the trunk and somehow slammed through the fold-down back seats and into the passenger compartment. On top was a large jug of ERA laundry soap.

And under all those bags of groceries, was a child's car seat.

Time froze. I grabbed the seat and checked it - empty. I emptied the contents of the back seat across the highway - nothing. Under the seats? Nothing. I grabbed a couple people and we started walking back and forth through the median. Nothing. The passenger was gone to the helicopter already, the driver was simply gone ... We didn't know if we were looking for something or not. After a while of searching the median, shoulder, and roadway the chief decided there was nothing to be found.

The other driver was extricated and transported; the sheriff's office was starting their reconstruction efforts, and we were standing next to a body in a car. I looked over the minivan for a few minutes. A load of construction material in the back had slid in the impact and ripped both front seats off their anchors. I've never seen destruction quite like that before or since.

Eventually we got the okay to finish removing the driver of the sedan. The door was opened, and in due course we moved the remains to a body bag for the trip to the morgue. I'd been around dead people before; nothing new there. That was the first time I'd zipped one up, and for some reason that has stuck with me a little bit.

The best summary of the feeling is from a line in M*A*S*H: "It never fails to astonish me. You're alive. You're dead. No drums, no flashing lights, no fanfare. You're just dead."

Yeah. That about covers it.

We eventually did get the rest of the story on the accident. It's a case of folks doing almost everything right and losing at the last minute. No, I won't share those details, because they aren't important.

The empty car seat had been empty all night; the little one was with family.

I've looked over the pictures of that accident scene a few times since; I still don't know exactly why we only had one body bag instead of three. I don't have the photos anymore - at least not those taken with a camera. The rest ... Well, they're there for me to carry.

I guess I can live with that.


Heal thyself

Just a quick note. 

We pick up the phone or jump on the rig to change or save lives every day. Every single day. 

Why won't we pick up the phone to save our own lives?

Code Green Campaign maintains a list of resources that are available. Please use them. 

I don't want to wear a mourning band again.