By Marc Revere
Published Tuesday, May 24, 2011
Since it happened in January 2009, the fire service has—rightly—looked to the successful crash landing of US Airways Flight 1549 into the Hudson River as an example of how good training can mitigate disaster when things go wrong. Captain Sullenberger, faced with a dire situation, fell back on his training, simulations and technical SOPs, as well as the crew resource management practices that are a crucial aspect of airline operations. The result: Stating “I have the controls,” Sullenberger perfectly executed a technical solution to the plane’s predicament. Five minutes later he was standing on the wings of his aircraft floating in the Hudson River.
But what do leaders do when training, SOPs and technical knowledge aren’t enough? Again, we can look to examples outside the fire service.
“Houston, we have a problem,” is the famous line (even if it’s not quite accurate) that the crew of Apollo 13 radioed back to Earth when they were halfway to the moon. That famous (and understated) line started a series of problem-solving endeavors, ones that NASA had never approached during a mission. It was quickly clear that Apollo 13 couldn’t land on the moon, which led the ground crew to go through the “what-if” abort scenarios. One of those scenarios—using the Moon’s gravity to return the ship to the Earth—was chosen, but even then the crew faced enormous challenges that didn’t fit any of the previous modeling—a shortage of food and water, the need to conserve all but the most essential power (which in turn limited communications with the ground crew) and insufficient resources for removing carbon dioxide.
Eventually, the Apollo 13 crew, working with engineers on the ground, was able to overcome these challenges, and they returned home safely. But their success wasn’t the result of training or simulation or SOPs; it was the result of adaptation. Gene Krantz, head of mission control, recognized this: “We are throwing out the flight plan. I don’t care what (space) craft was designed to do; all I care about is what it will do.”(1)
United Flight 232
Captain Al Haynes was en route from Denver to Chicago on a United Airlines DC-10 when one of the engines failed. CaptainHaynes had logged more than 7,190 hours in a DC-10, yet as he noted, “I’d never had an engine failure in flight other than in a simulation.”(2)
But he had trained for such an event, and thus started a technical process, a mental checklist of what he should do, while mechanics on the ground did the same. Unfortunately, Haynes’ simulation training wasn’t enough in this situation. Shrapnel from the engine had penetrated the lines of all three hydraulic systems on board the aircraft. Because the DC-10’s flight controls are hydraulically powered, this meant that the crew lost the ability to operate nearly all of the flight controls, including landing gear, rudders, brakes and flaps.
Similar to the crew of Apollo 13, the crew of United Flight 232 had to abandon pre-established solutions based upon preconceived aircraft design expectations, concentrating on what worked, not necessarily on what the DC-10 was designed to do.
Working with Denny Fitch, a DC-10 instructor who was on board that day, Captain Haynes and the crew used the two remaining engines independently to roughly steer the aircraft and adjust altitude, bringing it in line for a crash landing at the Sioux City (Iowa) airport. Although the crash was horrific, their solution saved the lives of two-thirds of the 285 passengers and 11 crewmembers on board.
Technical vs. Adaptive Leadership
Both Apollo 13 and United Flight 232 illustrate the concept of adaptive leadership. Adaptive challenges are those that deal with the unknown, where there are no polices or procedures, no known practices or solutions to fit the situation.
As I detailed in my last article, there are two levels of decision-making:
- Level 1 decision-making is effortless; it’s intuitive, fast, automatic, implicit and sometimes emotional, i.e., tactical. The “Miracle on the Hudson” is a classic example.
- Level 2 decision-making requires effort; it’s slow, conscious, explicit and logical, i.e., strategic. It includes assessments of the pros and cons and potential short- and long-term consequences. Apollo 13 and Untied Flight 232, considering their positive outcomes, are classic studies of Level 2 decision-making in an adaptive arena.
An organization’s overriding culture can be identified as technical, adaptive or both. To illustrate, let’s look at the military. The U.S. Navy and Air Force are process-driven organizations, and therefore oriented to technical solutions. They are like this because failure to follow processes and checklists could cause catastrophic losses costing hundreds of lives and millions, if not billions, of dollars. If, due to an overlooked maintenance procedure, a nut or bolt is dislodged, it can cause a $25 million aircraft to crash onto the deck of a $5 billion aircraft carrier, damaging both and possibly killing or injuring crewmembers.
In contrast, the Marine Corps and Army are more adaptive-driven organizations than process-driven. They are like this because they are dealing with the changing movements of the enemy and the vagaries of intelligence. To keep ground troops as safe as possible, they must be ready to “break the rules” and adapt to what’s happening on the battlefield.
In truth, aspects of all four of these military branches are adaptive, and other aspects are technical. I would venture to say most all organizations have both elements in their operations, but some are better at adaptation than others.
So where does the fire service culture fit in? We are very tactical (thus technical) in our fire operations. We all have policies and procedures, SOPs for each position and apparatus based upon the alarm—how to drive there, size up, forward lay or reverse, hose deployment, second-due assignment, RIT, command procedure, etc. All of this is done “by the book,” and even the variations we use have been pre-scripted.
But this only guides us to a point. The adaptive challenge happens once we open the door and advance our hoseline. Although fire behavior has consistent, predictable patterns, no fire is the same. Science becomes blended with art when you add in the sense of urgency, type of occupancy, time of day, fire conditions, building construction, etc. Similarly, vehicle accidents requiring extrication are adaptive situations. You’ll never face two that are exactly alike.
When the Rules No Longer Apply
The challenge for company officers and training officers, then, is twofold: Teach the SOPs, the play-by-plays, the technical solutions to the known problems, while at the same time giving firefighters the skills they will need when the rules no longer apply, when all the SOPs go out the window and they’re faced with a situation for which they never trained. In this type of situation, their very survival will depend on their ability to adapt.
In next month’s article, I’ll address some strategies that can help you successfully confront adaptive challenges.
- Kranz G: Failure Is Not an Option: Mission Control From Mercury to Apollo 13 and Beyond. Simon & Schuster: New York, 2000.
- (1992) Crash Landing: The Rescue of Flight 232 [film]. In OVGuide.com. Viewed April 2011 from www.ovguide.com/movies_tv/crash_landing_the_rescue_of_flight_232.htm.
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