"Safety first" or "Safety always"?

  • Published
  • By Senior Airman Montse Belleau
  • 509th Bomb Wing Public Affairs
"Safety first" is a popular phrase, often incorporated into an organization's values, but the phrase poorly defines the overall concept of safety.

"Safety isn't part of a checklist; it's a core value that must be integral to all operations, missions and decisions at all times," says Staff Sgt. Michael DeWandeler, 509th Bomb Wing ground safety technician. "Safety first implies we should never accept risk."

Whiteman Air Force Base's mission is to put bombs on target, a mission which compels Airmen to accept a lot more risk than many organizations. The Safety Office's mission is to prevent mishaps and thereby preserve combat readiness. Their key responsibilities are to plan, organize, direct and control safety activities, as well as analyze mishap causes and trends.

"Our goal is to mitigate risk and accept it only when absolutely necessary for mission accomplishment," DeWandeler says. "In other words, we must value safety always."

"There are twelve personnel in the Safety Office assigned to one of three sections - Weapons Safety, Flight Safety and Ground Safety," DeWandeler says. "My area of responsibility is ground safety, in which my coworkers and I focus on keeping base facilities safe and ensuring Airmen conduct on- and off-duty activities in a safe manner."

A mishap can occur at any time, so safety personnel are on call 24/7.

"When a mishap occurs, we conduct investigations to determine the root cause in order to prevent future mishaps," says DeWandeler. "Investigating a mishap puts all other work to the side, so after an investigation is completed, we have to play catch up with our other duties."

"Our workload is pretty even throughout the year, but the 'Critical Days of Summer' period is the riskiest for off-duty mishaps; [however,] effective campaigning puts Whiteman's mishap rate for that period roughly the same as the rest of the year," he says.

During the last year, the 509th Bomb Wing has had zero fatal traffic accidents, and zero reportable mishaps during major inspections.

"An important part of our mission is helping commanders manage and conduct their safety programs," DeWandeler says. "We assess and inspect areas and activities to eliminate mishap potentials. Successfully incorporating safety into the mission keeps us from weakening the Air Force's combat capability by unnecessarily losing valuable personnel and hardware."

DeWandeler says they have no annual unit inspections scheduled from October through December, so they use that period to develop policies and procedures for the next calendar year.

"We are fortunate to have a team of individuals who come from a variety of previous career fields," he says. "Our mission requires us to know a little bit about every job on base; therefore, we can utilize our in-office experience to effectively evaluate every work center and activity at Whiteman."

Airmen with the qualities above, along with experienced NCOs who are self-motivated and thrive on being challenged, make the Safety Office an environment of excellence.

"Our chief of safety and our safety managers appreciate that they can tell us what they want done and we do it with little or no leadership oversight," he said.