One Degree Off Course – Policies and Course Correction

On the morning of May 20, 1927, Lt. Charles Lindbergh took off in his custom-built Spirit of St. Louis aircraft from an airfield near Mineola, New York, and pointed the plane’s nose eastward. Over 30 hours later, he landed at Le Bourget Airport in Paris, France. Lindbergh’s solo transatlantic flight was celebrated in America and around the world as a triumph of skill, engineering and endurance. On his return home, “Lindy” was given a ticker-tape parade and a hero’s welcome.

Just over a month later, on June 28, Lt. Albert Hegenberger and Lt. Lester Maitland climbed into the Bird of Paradise, a stripped-down Fokker C-2 trimotor, in Oakland, California. They headed out over the vast Pacific Ocean, Maitland flying the plane and Hegenberger doing the navigating using an aerial sextant and directional beacons. Just over a day and 2,400 miles later, they landed at an airfield near Honolulu, completing the very first flight from the U.S. Mainland to Hawaii.

Though Lindbergh became a household name for his world-famous flight, Hegenberger and Maitland lived on in relative obscurity. However, when President Calvin Coolidge awarded the 1927 Mackay Trophy for the “most meritorious flight of the year,” he gave it to the men from the Bird of Paradise and not the pilot of the Spirit of St. Louis.

Why was the Hegenberger/Maitland flight to Hawaii considered more “meritorious” than Lindbergh’s much-hyped trip to Paris? It’s because of one simple fact: If you aim for Paris and miss, you still land safely in Europe. If you aim for Honolulu and miss, you run out of fuel and die.

Just One Degree Off Course

In the days before GPS and other sophisticated navigation aids, getting from point A to point B in a plane could be very difficult. The fact is, for every one degree a plane gets off course, it will miss its targeted landing spot by 92 feet for every mile you fly. If the Bird of Paradise had strayed, on average, just one degree off course during Hegenberger and Maitland’s flight from California to Honolulu, the plane would’ve ditched in the ocean 40 miles to the north or south of their intended destination — a potentially deadly mistake.

Similarly, if a ship is traveling a long distance, it must stay on course the entire time. Just one degree off course at the beginning of the journey can end hundreds of miles from the intended destination. Unless there is purposeful rerouting, any deviation from the original coordinates can be disastrous. The irony is that the ship can be thousands of miles off track and not even know because the scenery is so similar. After all, one bit of ocean looks very much like any other bit of ocean when there’s no land in sight.

Small course corrections can be impactful in other areas of life as well. Consider a man who goes for a checkup with his doctor. His bloodwork reveals he is one point into the realm of diabetes. He stops eating sugar, bread and ice cream and cuts way back on sweet tea, his drink of choice. He loses 20 pounds in three months just from the change in diet. His blood sugar and cholesterol both change drastically for the positive, and all of it was inspired by one point. That simple course correction is what made all the difference.

It is critical that public safety organizations develop and adopt policies, then train on and adhere to them

Navigating Your Department

These illustrations have a standard measurement in common. For navigation, it’s a degree on a compass; for health issues, it’s a point on a blood test. So, what is the standard to measure the trajectory of your public safety agency? Are you on or off track — within one degree of a disaster — on any critical measurements such as legal liability, morale or line-of-duty deaths (LODDs)? How can you even know?

It is critical that public safety organizations develop and adopt policies, then train on and adhere to them. Policies provide compliance for safety, consistency, laws and guidance. Following them helps keep your organization on course, alerting you when anyone deviates from the standards your department has set.

However, policies won’t do your organization any good if your employees don’t follow them, or if they are not kept up to date with today’s changing laws and legislation. If you’re navigating based on old, outdated policies, even if everyone follows them to the letter, you may be headed to the wrong destination. This would be tantamount to Lindbergh reaching Paris and discovering that the city has been moved somewhere else.

Position and Heading

The crew of the Bird of Paradise knew they couldn’t rely on a simple compass to get them safely to a tiny island in the middle of the ocean. Throughout their monumental flight, Lt. Hegenberger checked their actual position (as opposed to their current heading) by using an aerial sextant, which was adapted from the instruments that helped keep sailing ships on course.

Your organization’s policies serve a very similar function. At a public safety agency, policies provide a consistent method for guiding and measuring what’s happening within the organization, allowing you to correct your course as you go. As mentioned above, just one degree of deviation in policy can result in disastrous consequences.

Policies and procedures provide consistent, day-to-day operations for an organization. They also improve safety levels in a workplace by establishing rules that concur with state or federal workplace regulations.

After my 40 years in the fire service, I often think about that ship traveling across the ocean, fully at the mercy of its navigational instruments because the scenery never changes. By nature, we do not like change. Many of us in public safety are traditionalists. How many times have you heard, “We’ve always done it this way”? We continue to do the same things over and over because the “scenery” is familiar. We tend to want to remain in our comfort zone.

Policies need to be developed and revised to reflect new legislation and case law. Like well-calibrated navigational instrument, a well-maintained, up-to-date policy manual is key to the ongoing success and safety of your agency, personnel and community.

Check Your Policies Today!

If your agency lacks consistency through clearly stated policies, or if your department’s policies are “one degree off” or outdated, your employees may not be acting in accordance with the law, putting both your personnel and your community at risk. Operating in this condition also exposes your agency to liability, with the possibility of sanctions and costly lawsuits. While it’s impossible to eliminate all risk, policies exist to help agencies stay on course as much as possible.

Whether it’s for a short period or an extended time, being one degree off course can lead to potentially disastrous outcomes. So, what are you doing to ensure a sound navigation plan?

Sam DiGiovanna

SAM DIGIOVANNA is a 40-year fire service veteran. He started with the Los Angeles County Fire Department, served as Fire Chief at the Monrovia Fire Department, and currently serves as Chief at the Verdugo Fire Academy in Glendale. He also is also a Senior Consultant for Lexipol and the Cordico wellness solution.

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