Heeding the Lessons

Snippets and the human factor




I recently watched the movie “Sully” that starred Tom Hanks as Captain Chesley “Sully’ Sullenberger, the pilot in command of the US Airways jet the made the “Miracle on the Hudson” landing”.

While everyone knows the story of Cactus 1549, the movie centers on the aftermath of the incident… the NTSB investigation and the PTSD issues and nightmares that Captain Sullenberger and his first officer Jeffery Skiles had.

The “black boxes” recovered from the Airbus A320 indicated that one of the jet’s engines was in the idle position after the bird strike and based on that reading, the flight crew could have returned to LaGuardia or landed at Teterboro airport in New Jersey.  Sully had stated that both engines were out and could not be restarted and that there was no way the aircraft could make it back to the airport, which is the reason that he and Skiles made the decision to make a water landing on the Hudson River. He requested that the flight be re-enacted in Airbus Industries’ flight simulator. Two pilots re-enacted the flight it a few times and the conclusion was that the aircraft could have returned to LaGuardia or landed at Teterboro. While these flights were done based on computer inputs from the black boxes, Sully and Skiles pointed out that they forgot one thing: the human factor. When the timeframe of the human factor was added, the simulations ended far differently. The attempts land at LaGuardia and Teterboro would have resulted in the aircraft crashing with severe loss of life.

When the aircraft was first recovered from the Hudson River, it was discovered that the left engine had separated from the aircraft. That engine was recovered and it was determined that Sully was correct, the damage sustained to the engine rendered it inoperable and it may have been a sensor glitch that indicated the engine was operating.

Now you may be wondering… what does the flight of Cactus 1549 and the subsequent investigation must do with firefighting?

Everything. Fire personnel, both current and retired who were not at an incident or saw a snippet of it on the news are become “armchair incident commanders”, often cutting a department’s operation to ribbons based on “their opinion”.

If the fire resulted in a line of duty death, NIOSH does an investigation based on the facts they gather. One of the “facts” about these investigations that sticks out like a proverbial sore thumb is that the NIOSH investigators were not there and that they tend to forget the” human factor” … the emotions that the firefighters are going through during and after the incident.

As a line officer and Deputy Chief, I had read many NIOSH reports.  Every NIOSH report about firefighter line of duty deaths should be read, not only by company and chief officers but by all fire personnel. These reports can be used as part of training.

The Fire service needs to heed these hard lessons that were paid for by the blood, sweat and tears of our Brothers and Sisters so history does not repeat itself.



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RonBioPhotoPrior to his retirement, Ron Ayotte was one of four Deputy Fire Chiefs with the Marlborough Fire Department, Marlborough, Massachusetts. Ron began his career with the MFD in November of 1981, was promoted to Lieutenant in November of 1988, Promoted to Captain in August of 2000 and was promoted to Deputy Chief in 2006. Ron’s responsibilities at the MFD include incident command, communications, plans review, inspections and training. Ron also works per diem in the Support Services division at the Massachusetts Department of Fire Services/Massachusetts Firefighting Academy, working support for various Academy programs, including Recruit training, Call/Volunteer training, Certification and LNG-LPG firefighting training. Ron’s writings and musings can be seen at Chief Concerns.
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