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Sep
07
2014

SMS: IS IT ONLY FOR BIG OPERATORS?

Posted 9 years 233 days ago ago by Admin

 

SMS: IS IT ONLY FOR BIG OPERATORS?

By James Careless

With four pilots and two helicopters (a Bell 407 and a Bell 430) Baltimore Helicopters Services (BHS) is a good example of a successful small helicopter operator. Their core business is VIP transport to major cities, including New York City and Washington DC, supplemented by sightseeing and aerial land surveys.

BHS is also a prime example of a small helicopter operator implementing its own safety management system (SMS). “SMS doesn’t just make our operations safer, but it has also proven to be a huge sales tool,” says BHS Director of Safety Jason Swingle, who is one of the company’s three full-time pilots. (Their fourth pilot is part-time.) He continues, “The big corporations we serve have high standards for their air transport providers, including a requirement for them to have a SMS in place. By implementing our SMS in July 2013, BHS has moved into this elite group – and our VIP corporate business has increased as a result.”

On the other side of the continent, J.R. Helicopters of Yakima, Washington also serves the VIP transport market, along with crop-dusting, firefighting, heli-skiing, and a range of other services. With a six-helicopter fleet (four Bell 206B3s, one Bell 206L4, and one Eurocopter AS350 B3 AStar) J.R. Helicopters also qualifies as a small helicopter operator – and another one that has its own SMS.

“We are in our fourth year of having a SMS, which we implemented to improve safety for our employees, our passengers, and our company,” says J.R. Helicopters’ Director of Operations Jason Rubright. “Having a SMS in place enhances our ability to do what we do safely and professionally.”

Given that it flies three Sikorsky S-70A Firehawks and six Bell 412s, the Los Angeles County Fire Department (LACoFD) has a fleet that’s bigger than BHS and J.R. Helicopters combined. Yet, it is still a small operator compared to a big player like Air Methods, which has 380 helicopters. And yes, the LACoFD has its own SMS, implemented back in July 2011.

“Our SMS applies to everyone in our organization; not just pilots, but also ground crews and maintenance technicians,” says Linda Brumfield, the LACoFD Air & Wildland Division’s nurse educator, who is involved in facilitating, maintaining, training and applying the unit’s SMS. “Our SMS is integrated with all operational procedures and EMS quality indicators, so that everything we do is done with an emphasis on safety.”

The LACoFD decided to implement SMS in response to a third-party assessment of the air unit’s capabilities, plus the leadership of senior LACoFD officers who learned about the U.S. Joint Helicopter Safety Team (USJHST) and its pioneering SMS efforts. “Today, we hold daily briefings in which our air crews, ground crews, and technicians discuss SMS and safety-related issues, and how to resolve them,” Brumfield says. “Moving to a safety culture has really changed how we do business.”

Confronting the SMS Challenge

For an industry that already faces a lot of paperwork, the idea of developing, implementing, and maintaining a SMS is a daunting task. “Most small operators can see the benefits of having a SMS, but they are simply overwhelmed by the thought of setting it up,” says Bryan Smith, safety program manager with the Airborne Law Enforcement Association (ALEA). “This is why ALEA provides SMS materials and one-to-three day training courses to help get them started. After all, 90 percent of our members are small fleet operators.”

So how can a small operator start a SMS program? One place to begin is with something free, such as the USJHST’s “Safety Management System Toolkit”, which is available at ihst.org.

This comprehensive, yet clearly written, document is like a SMS implementation-to-go. It explains why a SMS matters, how to create one, and how a SMS can shape a helicopter operator’s corporate culture to make it not just safety-focused, but also a better and more constructive place to work.

ALEA also provides its own SMS Toolkit at alea.org, plus a range of form templates for SMS documents such as Hazard and Risk Assessment Reports and Flight Risk Assessment Tools (FRAT).

FRAT is one of the LACoFD’s most important SMS documents. It allows the air unit to dynamically assess the risks associated with each potential mission based on crew fatigue and time on duty, time of day, weather and light conditions, mission type, landing conditions, and other relevant factors.

“Our pilots and air medics all have FRATs on their iPads and update them every day, so that they can accurately assess risks before flying into danger,” Brumfield explains. “As their shifts wear on, the FRATs take note of time passing and alter the risk assessments accordingly.”

Getting Help

Even with the best free resources in the world, small operators may find setting up a SMS too difficult to do on their own. For example, the LACoFD worked diligently through the USJHST’s program, only to find that their air unit seemed to partially fit in all possible levels. Brumfield describes the dilemma, “Frankly, it got confusing trying to apply a generic SMS platform to all three of our missions; firefighting, search and rescue, and EMS.”

Smith understands this impasse. It is why ALEA offers short, yet intensive, SMS training courses to its members. “It is unrealistic to say, ‘Hey, Bob, you’re now our Safety guy,’ and expect Bob to develop a SMS on the spot,” Smith explains. “This is why sending Bob to a SMS introductory course can really help, even if it’s just to convince Bob that he needs more help.”

Fortunately, there are companies out there that provide SMS support, including defining and implementing SMS for their aviation clients. One of these firms is Baldwin Aviation, which offers three levels of SMS support. “We provide all the tools necessary to create and capture safety data within an organization,” says Don Baldwin, the company’s president. “The best part is that a SMS can be scaled to the size of an operation. A small operator with a few helicopters can have a straightforward SMS that fits into a single binder, and integrates with their existing ways of doing business safely.”     

Argus International’s PRISM SMS is another third-party SMS option. “Small operators face many challenges implementing a SMS,” says Argus International Vice President of Helicopter Aviation Services Chris Young. “We find that the most needed attributes for this segment are level of customization, ease of use, and low cost.”

Coincidentally, PRISM is the choice of BHS, J.R. Helicopters, and the LACoFD. “Our insurance company steered us to the Argus people,” says BHS’s Swingle. “They soon had a SMS ready that was customized to our needs, and they implemented it for us. They also help us keep it up-to-date, as part of a service covered by a yearly fee.”

“The PRISM people worked with us over the phone to find out how we operated and what we needed in our SMS,” says J.R. Helicopters’ Jason Rubright. “Their system works; I think it is one of the best options open to small operators wanting to implement a SMS.”

Brumfield likes how PRISM works for the LACoFD. “The idea of using a third-party SMS appealed to our insurance company, which underwrites our risk management policy. So, to reduce premium costs, the Los Angeles County government paid to have us and the sheriff department’s aviation unit hire PRISM to set up and support a SMS. They provided the overall design and forms, and we tweaked them to meet our specific needs.”
    
Making a Difference

Since they implemented their safety management systems, BHS, J.R. Helicopters, and the LACoFD have all seen improvements in the safety of their operations (through reduced accidents and incidents) and they have noticed an overall change in the culture of their organizations. “Safety is no longer one of many important priorities,” says Brumfield. “It is now central to everything we do.”    

“SMS has spurred everyone in our company to take ownership for safety in all kinds of areas,” says J.R. Helicopters’ Rubright. “For instance, when lights burned out on the ramp in the past and it got dark at night, people would tend to slough it off as somebody else’s responsibility. Today, people report those burned out lights when they fail and the bulbs get replaced quickly. It may seem like a small change, but it reflects a fundamental shift in attitudes towards safety.”

The moral to this story: Small operators who implement SMS enjoy tangible benefits from doing so. “It’s not as daunting as I thought it would be, and the payoff is more than worth it,” says BHS’s Swingle. “We’re a better company all around, now that we have our own SMS.”
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