“It Is Raining”: How 3 Words Can Help Manage the Risk of Complacency

by | January 8, 2020

Editor’s note: This article is part of a series. Click here for the previous article.

Gordon Graham here! In my last article, I promised some thoughts on how you can fight complacency in your public safety operations. In preparing for this article, I decided the best way to address the topic of complacency is to tell you a story. So here is the “Reader’s Digest” version of my multi-year effort to address complacency in vehicle operations.

San Francisco is where I was born. I believe it was Mark Twain who quipped, “The coldest winter I ever experienced was summer in San Francisco.” It is still a beautiful city and I visit it often, but the fog and the cold are quite impressive. While rain is relatively rare in California, the heavy fog in San Francisco results in very wet streets much of the time, and it was on those streets that I learned how to drive in the early 1960s. Suffice it to say that by the age of 22 (when I started my law enforcement career with the California Highway Patrol) I was a pretty good “wet weather driver” because I had a lot of experience in driving on roadways with a low coefficient of friction.

At that time the Patrol sent all the new officers to Los Angeles, so I spent my first 10 years on the job in the Central Los Angeles office—made famous by the TV show CHiPs. It rarely rains in Los Angeles, but when it did I learned something: People in L.A. cannot drive in the rain. They are utterly helpless at the first indication of precipitation. As a result, we had a high number of traffic collisions every time it rained. Sadly, CHP officers were not immune from this issue. Every time it rained some poor CHP officer would stack up a patrol car. Nearly every day it rained when I was on duty, I had to investigate CHP-involved collisions.

Every time it rained some poor CHP officer would stack up a patrol car.

After 10 years the CHP demonstrated a great sense of humor by promoting me to sergeant; fortunately, I was allowed to remain in Central L.A. About six months into my career as a sergeant, it started to rain about halfway through afternoon shift. Based on my 10 years of experience as a cop investigating CHP-involved traffic collisions every time it rained, there were loud “claxons” going off in my head, forewarning me that one of my cops was going to get involved in an at-fault collision—and for many obvious reasons, I did not want that to happen.

I gave this potential problem some thought. And then I did it! I got on the radio and asked dispatch to put out a broadcast to all units to advise them that it was raining. I can only imagine the double eyeroll I was getting from some dispatcher sitting in a dark room miles away, but she did what I asked and announced to all units, “It is raining.”

Having been a cop for 10 years and a sergeant for less than a year, my cop (and my union rep) brain still had a concern: Did my cops hear this broadcast, and would they take it seriously? So I followed up with a second request to dispatch: “Would you please do a roll call of all 50 units to confirm they heard the earlier broadcast?”

And again she did as I requested and went through the entire roster: “15-10, Did you copy, it is raining.” And the cop said yes. And then dispatch went to all the other beat 10 units, then all the beat 20 units, then 30, 40, 50, 60, 70 and beat 80 units, each time waiting until she got an acknowledgment from the unit that they had heard the broadcast, “It is raining.”

Guess what? Eight hours later, it was still raining and the shift was over—and not one of my cops stacked up their sled that day. It continued to rain throughout the night, and when I got to work the next day I learned that “graveyards” stacked up a car, and day shift stacked up a car. I did the exact same thing I did the previous day—and wallah!—no one stacked up a car on afternoon shift.

The statistics people reading this know that two days without a collision in the rain by itself proves nothing. But I kept implementing my action plan on afternoon shift every time it rained in ’83, ’84, ’85, ’86 and ’87. One day in 1988 I did this, and my lieutenant (and you wonder why I tell so many lieutenant jokes) came into the sergeant’s office after hearing my usual rainy-day announcement. The conversation went something like this:

Lieutenant (nearly screaming): “Who is 15-S4?”

Gordon: “I am S-4.” (You would think that the watch commander would know the call signs of his sergeants, but that is another story.)

Lieutenant: “What is this BS about it is raining?”

Gordon (pointing to window): “It is raining.”

Lieutenant: “Why are you tying up valuable air time with this nonsense?”

Gordon (whipping out a binder with six years of data): “In the six years I’ve been broadcasting that message on rainy days, not one CHP car has wrecked on afternoon shift .”

Lieutenant: “You got lucky.”

No, Lieutenant, that is not luck—it is called managing the risk of complacency.

So that is a “long story short.” I’ve used up my word allotment with this story, but I think it’s a good example of how attacking complacency can make a difference. The mere fact that you are reading this tells me that you care, and you want to improve your operations. If you focus on managing the risk of complacency, I promise you will.

In my next article, we will look at one of the huge problems lying in wait for everyone in public safety: fatigue. To give you a head start on this, please check out the on-demand webinar, “Feeling Sleepy? How Officer Fatigue Creates Individual and Agency Risk.”

Until next time, thanks for all you are doing to make things better in our profession.

TIMELY TAKEAWAY—Please look at your operations and ask yourself, “What specific tasks would be most likely to end up in tragedy because an employee got complacent?” Then, develop some control measures to help attack this complacency. I don’t care if it is handling chemicals, or 9-1-1 hang-ups, or dirty drug paraphernalia, or seatbelt usage, or right-side vs. left-side approaches, or inmate searches—in the high-risk world that we live in, we must continually fight complacency.

GORDON GRAHAM is a 33-year veteran of law enforcement and the co-founder of Lexipol, where he serves on the current board of directors. Graham is a risk management expert and a practicing attorney who has presented a commonsense risk management approach to hundreds of thousands of public safety professionals around the world. Graham holds a master’s degree in Safety and Systems Management from University of Southern California and a Juris Doctorate from Western State University.

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