Commentary by Lt. Col. Thomas Ste. Marie
2nd Space Operations Squadron commander
To many of us in the Air Force, the words “Operational Risk Management” have become somewhat stale. The often turned to traditional training approach (a.k.a. Powerpoint or e-mail) doesn’t seem relevant or engaging to the average Airman as leaders brief safety across the entire spectrum, from fireworks to barbecues to sunscreen. Sadly, we lost one of our own Schriever teammates just about two weeks ago in a motorcycle accident. I’m convinced no amount of Powerpoint or articles in the base paper could have stopped this tragic event. As leaders, do we want you to be safe? Of course. But do we now want you to retreat to the relative safety of homes and couches for the entire summer? My answer is a firm “no.”
Recently, Capt. Colin Merrin, 2nd Space Operations Squadron, began a journey to climb the world’s highest peak, Mount Everest. While I was initially apprehensive to support such an endeavor, I considered his elite mountaineering background and the principles I just mentioned. Instead of discouraging this activity, I fully supported him. The results were nothing short of amazing — and you may have read the full account of his adventure and his life or death choices in this paper and across the Internet. So as a part of my article this week, I asked him to share some words with all of us about what he has learned about addressing risk while doing one of the most risky activities in the world.
“Some believe the Air Force approach to risk management is really a matter of risk avoidance,” Merrin said. “They are not the same and the Air Force Safety Center has taken a direct interest in reinvigorating and reforming the ORM concept and is urgently spreading the message. As a member of the USAF 7 Summits Team, I can personally attest to this fact.”
On May 20, the Air Force proudly supported a team of Airmen on a historic Mount Everest ascent. Merrin and his team became the first U.S. military team to summit Mount Everest and fly the U.S. flag from the highest point on Earth. The effort to scale one of the most dangerous mountains in the world was accomplished with the direct support from the Air Force.
“We want the members in our U.S. Air Force to be strong, active men and women with a mind for adventure,” continued Merrin. “The reality of the situation is that risk is a part of our everyday life. Whether we are deploying military force down range or we are engaging in free-time hobbies, some degree of risk is ever-present. It is our responsibility to mitigate that risk as safely as possible.”
For example, during the Everest climb, the USAF 7 Summits Team had to climb through the notorious Khumbu Ice-Fall six separate times. Every year climbers are killed in this glacier section of Mount Everest because of falling ice, giant crevasses and deadly avalanches.
“As a team we didn’t pack up and head home; the Air Force didn’t renounce their support and force us to stop climbing,” Merrin said. “Instead we assessed the risk systematically and decided the safest, most responsible method to climb through the ice-fall was quickly and during hours without direct sunlight. This minimized our exposure to the hazards.”
Merrin said this approach to risk can, and should, be employed by all.
“It doesn’t have to be the Mount Everest Khumbu Ice-fall to force us to act responsibly,” he said. “Maybe you’re a hunter, a private pilot or a carpenter. No matter what your interest is, it is necessary to recognize the associated risks and come up with a methodical plan to lessen the probability of the hazards occurring. The point is, engage in those activities as safely as possible.”
So Team Schriever, as we embark on another amazing Colorado summer, it’s not about hiding in the air conditioning, under a blanket with all the lights out. It’s about managing risk in all the ways it presents itself. I use the six Ds: if an activity is “Dumb, Different, Dangerous or Dull” your risk is inherently going up; if you are “Distracted or Drinking” the risk compounds. Doing any of these kinds of activities in combination increases that risk exponentially each time you add in a “D.” To me, it’s all about recognizing risks. On and off duty, as you experience risk, first identify it and then come up with a solid plan to address and mitigate it — then have a backup plan. Better yet, have a wingman along the way. Captain Merrin had plans, backup plans and wingmen on that mountain peak: his USAF 7 Summits Team, his Sherpa guide, and all of us back here at Team Schriever. Have all three for yourself this summer too.