Commentary: Hey, watch this!

  • Published
  • By Brig. Gen. Stephen L. Hoog
  • U.S. Air Force Warfare Center Commander

"Good wingmen never go off duty, and they willingly support leaders, subordinates and peers in protecting our Air Force people and resources"--Air Force Safety Center (www.afsc.af.mil)

What do you think are the three most dangerous words in the English language? You and I may have different answers, but whenever I hear someone say, "Hey, watch this!" warning bells go off.

I can think of very few instances where one simple phrase can have such far reaching consequences. Rarely do those three words precede a purely positive outcome, yet I can think of dozens of examples where they paved the way for a negative result. In some cases they heralded a harmless moment ... one which resulted in a simple loss of face or embarrassment amongst your peers.

In some illustrations it has generated painful, yet reparable, damage to people or resources. Unfortunately, in too many events, the result of "Hey, watch this!" has been catastrophic. Have you ever heard someone use those words right before they embarked down a path of no return? If so, did you do anything about it?

We all recognize that we'll never be 100 percent accident-free, but I am a firm believer that most incidents are preventable. Some accidents are going to happen, it's a given. The question is...what can we do to ensure we've mitigated as many risks as possible?

As Airmen, we are truly lucky to be in a vast organization which embraces the "wingman culture." Safety begins with each individual, but you are never alone. A good wingman should be your constant companion, and ought to be there to say "knock it off" when something just isn't right. Understanding this ethos means knowing you are a wingman to your fellow Airmen, your civilian friends, your family and to your own conscience. Safety is not rocket science ... safety boils down to simple "common sense."

In 2007, the U.S. Air Force Warfare Center had 118 reportable safety incidents, with 104 of them occurring among personnel stationed at Nellis. Of those, off-duty activities resulted in nearly 70 percent of all cases. You can imagine what those entailed -- strained backs from improperly lifting heavy items around the house, slips while taking a shower, cuts from falling tree branches while landscaping the front yard. In fact, 57 percent of our off-duty incidents in 2007 were related to sports and recreation, while an additional 41 percent were related to vehicle and motorcycle accidents.

Our on-duty incidents also run the gamut -- from trips and falls in the workplace, to lacerations from box cutters, to cases involving government vehicles. I will share one interesting story with you. One of our Airmen, after drinking alcohol, decided it would be a good idea to take a running jump over a large bonfire to impress some friends. This resulted in torn tendons to his knee. Not only did he cause himself personal pain, he caused extra work for fellow Airmen who were left to cover his work during medical downtime. Do you think there was a "Hey, watch this!" moment? Better yet, what did the other folks around the bonfire say in the moments just before the jump?

We are the greatest Air Force in the world, capable of executing highly complex missions under strenuous circumstances. Yet, most of our preventable accidents occur during peacetime operations. Why is that?

As warfighters our attention to detail, sense of urgency and focus are highest during the intensity of combat. A pilot would never take off for a mission over Baghdad without having thought through every possible contingency ... without thinking through every single thing that "could go wrong." What happens if there is an aircraft system emergency during the mission? What happens if you are unable to receive fuel from the tanker aircraft? Or perhaps you are one of our young convoy commanders ... where are your escape routes? How do you move out of the field of fire and call for support all along the route?

When the bullets are flying ... you have no time to think through all of this. Your reaction must be instinctual and it must be decisive. In this instance, both succeed because he thought through every possible outcome before setting foot in the aircraft or leaving on the convoy.

The validity of this lesson is universal: think before you act. All Airmen must think "ahead of the aircraft." All Airmen should think one step ahead of their own actions both on and off duty. The challenge to you is to lead your lives in a way that keeps your focus one step ahead of your actions; safety is what happens in the next 30 seconds...and the next...keeping "common sense" alive and well in our everyday lives.

The summer months bring an increase in outdoor activities such as swimming, camping, and traveling. This is a time to relax and rejuvenate; a time to spend with your family and friends. While the changing of the seasons may bring a change in the type of risks we encounter, it should not change our focus on "common sense."

Always anticipate the unexpected, always stay one step ahead of your actions, always be a wingman to your fellow Airman, family and to your own conscience. If someone says "Hey, watch this!" their wingman should be there to say, "Hey, let's not." If the hair on the back of your neck starts to tingle or you are wondering if this video clip may end up on "YouTube," step in and slow things down. The greatest reward for a commander after the summer months is to have everyone return healthy and refreshed.

"Common sense safety" is our people taking care of each other. Go out and enjoy this special time. Spend it with family and friends, and if you have an opportunity, invite a young Airman or a family separated by a deployment along for the fun. Have a safe and wonderful summer!