LT. COL. PHILLIP G. JENISON
U.S. Army Combat Readiness Center
Fort Rucker, Alabama
As a former battalion commander in the 82nd Airborne Division, I encountered dozens of hazards on a daily basis that I and many of the leaders in our organization took for granted. This is not to say we were a high-risk unit or had poor standards and discipline. The argument is simple: being a paratrooper is dangerous business and, like others, I did not always realize the full range of environmental and occupational safety hazards out there which could cause death, injury or illness to our formations. However, from a training perspective, we were great at focusing on specific hazards and executing the risk management process to mitigate or eliminate them from our mission. In hindsight, as a battalion commander, risk management was, on occasion, something I saw as an added step to planning and executing training and not a deeply rooted and integral part of the safety process.
As the ground director for Army safety, I am now focused on assisting and enabling the Army with programs and tools to ensure safety is an integral part of everything a unit does. With this, I gained a greater appreciation on the importance and necessity to operationalize safety into the way we understand, visualize, describe, direct, lead and assess our activities. Operationalize it with the way we execute the operations process with our Soldiers on and off duty, and our unit’s mission.
Looking at the Army’s operations process expanded, our doctrine tells us much like intelligence preparation of the battlefield (IPB); intelligence, surveillance and reconnaissance (ISR); and targeting, risk management is an integrating process and must not be separated from our approach to operations. As a commander, my top three enduring priorities were leader development, inculcating our vision and training. I did these by exercising mission command, building teams among teams, creating a continuous shared understanding, and accepting prudent risk when applicable. These methodologies and concepts allowed me to operationalize safety into almost every activity our unit did. However, we still had our own share of accidents.
I vividly remember a significant safety issue we had with our one and only indirect firing incident during a field training exercise. It involved a subordinate unit that was in the process of reflagging and joining our battalion within the month. During this lead-up time, the battery participated in a live-fire training in preparation for section and crew certification prior to the official transfer of authority to our battalion.
The incident resulted in a howitzer section shooting an artillery round that landed 3,000 meters short on the gun target line, 150 meters outside the impact area and near friendly troops — well off from the intended target location. Fortunately, there were no injuries. This error resulted in a firing incident investigation that exposed gaps in our planning, preparation and execution of training with a new unit. Contributing factors were improper crew drills during a multiple round fire mission, the lack of night vision capability and poor reporting exasperated the incident.
I often examine the hazards and contributing factors that led to this mishap, asking myself what we could have done differently or what changes needed to happen. I realize that as much as I communicated, oversaw and directed planning and operations, wanting to have the best plan developed, friction is always present and a contributor to operations. This highlights the importance of the Army’s five-step risk management process and the need for leaders to exercise constant adaptive risk management. In other words, continuously make it part of everything we do.
Operationalizing safety is a mindset that encompasses an understanding of mission command, the operations process, Army doctrine and, more importantly, a deep sense to do everything possible to take care of Soldiers and accomplish the mission. None of this would be possible without leader involvement from the bottom up. Soldiers and leaders must routinely know how to identify, mitigate and eliminate hazards in every aspect of their lives as service members. The fact that we are living in a strategically complex, uncertain and rapidly changing environment, coupled with the inherent mission of our Army, underscores this even more.
The good news is that units don’t have to reinvent the wheel; just keep the air in the tire by utilizing many of the safety programs and tools to assist with planning and executing training or deploying. Tools such as the Army Readiness Assessment Program, the additional duty safety officer, the Travel Risk Planning System, the Ground Risk Assessment Tool and many others all help commanders and formations integrate safety into the operations process.
From the seat of the ground director for Army safety, I challenge commanders, their leaders and Soldiers to embrace an environment of continuous learning and application of safety principles and practices. Be creative at operationalizing safety and not putting it on the back burner or feeling as though you have to check the block as you approach training and increase your readiness posture.