Commentary by Lt. Col. Kevin Reigstad
23rd Space Operations Squadron
NEW BOSTON AIR FORCE STATION, N.H. — How fun would it be if you could yell “Fire in the hole!” and step on a plunger to initiate destruction of an unexploded 60-year-old 100-pound bomb? Unexploded ordnance technicians think it is fun — and it’s deadly serious business too.
As the New Boston AFS installation commander, I’m working to keep personnel safe while leaving it to the professionals to clean up the remnants from the station’s years as a bombing range for WWII and Korean War aviators.
In 1959, our satellite operations mission was built upon the abandoned station well away from the original target areas. A few years ago, the Defense Department began removing unexploded ordnance from its ranges. We identified that nearly half of the acreage on New Boston AFS contained unexploded ordnance and metal debris.
So, how are we responding to this safety issue? And, why should you care?
First, keeping personnel safe is hard work. It takes leadership and constant vigilance at every level to achieve it. It also takes flexibility. You may need to adjust your plans as you get more information, and these adjustments always have to stay focused on two things — the mission and safety.
The 23rd Space Operations Squadron’s leaders used a wing-level operational risk management assessment to balance mission accomplishment and safety of personnel. We immediately assessed it wasn’t realistic or necessary to conduct a station evacuation. We’ve been here for the last 50 years coming to work, maintaining the station and recreating without incident. However with safety as a top priority, we restricted most natural resources management activities and closed nearly 1,000 acres of woods to recreational activities. We also posted warning signs and briefed station employees about hazards and risks.
After a command review, and upon further evaluation of our safety needs, we restricted public access from the family campgrounds and limited the station’s remaining recreational areas to fitness activities by on-site personnel only.
To ensure the utmost safety for our on-site personnel, we diligently train our personnel to spot hazards, mitigate risks and maintain a “safety-first” sense of situational awareness.
We maintained these standards for nine months — without a safety incident. However, we didn’t stop there. We organized a larger pool of experts and formed a new, expanded ORM team including Air Force Space Command and AF Safety Center. Following their extensive study, we further restricted activities on the station.
We immediately halted all digging, earth moving and heavy ground impacting activities, pursued DOD-level approval for construction activities, and began requiring UXO technician escorts for tasks that require entrance into the wooded areas in the UXO range. These are tough decisions. They impact station employees’ day-to-day work and increase both cost and time. The bottom-line, however, is the mission and safety. Keeping flexible and making tough changes serves both requirements.
In conducting UXO cleanup in the Air Force, 23rd SOPS is farthest along and we continue to perform all mission operations inside the UXO range. These efforts resulted in 23rd SOPS winning the 2008 Air Force Chief of Safety Outstanding Achievement Award for Ground Safety. Dialogue will continue with AFSPC and AF Safety Center to ensure safety standards are in compliance during the current and upcoming UXO removal phases to make New Boston AFS a center of excellence.
The necessity to partner with safety and headquarters leaders to manage risk are important lessons. Schriever AFB Fire and safety staffs recently joined with you and AFSPC to change a draft AFOSH standard to allow mission essential personnel to stay in place when the fire alarm sounds. Now it is up to you to decide who stays in place, balancing mission and safety.
At New Boston AFS, safety is more than realizing the 109 Critical Days of Summer kicks off in May. Safety sometimes requires making tough decisions. Oftentimes, it requires assembling a comprehensive team of expert stakeholders that are crucial to analyzing the problem and developing a safe solution with minimal impact to the mission. Leadership in safety is required 365 days a year to balance mission accomplishment and protect personnel in the workplace.