Taking on “Bud”: Why Reckless Employees Have No Place in Public Safety

by | March 13, 2024

Gordon Graham here! In my last article I recommended you pick up a copy of Darker Shades of Blue by Dr. Tony Kern. Allow me to digress here and tell you about this American treasure. I rarely use that term – even though I have met lots of great people who have done a lot of great things for our nation – but Dr. Kern is truly a treasure.

Dr. Kern is a retired B-1 pilot, prolific author, brilliant lecturer, successful businessman and overall good guy. Darker Shades of Blue was my introduction to him; I picked it up in 2000 at a bookstore in Long Beach. This was long before I had a Kindle or other e-reader and my very mature way of buying a book back then was to read the first page and if it was of interest to me, I would buy the book. Here is what caught my eye in this book:

“What’s the deal with this guy?” Captain Bill Kramer asked, indicating a car conspicuously parked in the center of the red-curbed no parking zone adjacent to the military base wing headquarters building. It was a short walk from the HQ building, commonly referred to as “The White House,” to the parking lot where they had left their own vehicles while attending the briefing on the upcoming air show. As they passed the illegally parked car and then the various spaces reserved for the wing and operations group commanders, Lieutenant Colonel Winslow turned to Captain Kramer and replied, “That Bud’s car. He always parks there.” After a few more steps the captain inquired, “How does he get away with that?” The lieutenant colonel reflected for a moment and responded, “I don’t know – he just does.”

After getting hooked by that paragraph I finished the book quickly, then inquired into what else Dr. Kern had written. And as I mentioned earlier, he has written a lot of books. Dr. Kern’s early works dealt with aviation issues – what a fluke, a pilot with a doctorate writing about aviation issues. But over the years he has shifted into to writing (and speaking) about how the lessons learned from aviation tragedies apply not just to aviators, but to those working in other high-risk industries – including public safety.

For those of you who don’t have the time to read anything, you are really missing the boat! For those of you who don’t have the time to read this book – that I can understand. There is so, so much to read at work – and “pleasure reading” for many is not possible. But switch gears and recognize that reading this book may be “pleasurable” but it truly is a “business” book with valuable lessons throughout.

Darker Shades of Blue is about aviation tragedies in the United States Air Force. Throughout the book Dr. Kern references “Czar 52” – the call sign of a B-52 H Stratofortress that crashed on June 24, 1994, at Fairchild Airforce Base in Washington state. This crash resulted in the destruction of the warcraft and the deaths of four members of our Air Force – including the pilot in charge – Lt. Colonel “Bud.” The Wikipedia piece provides a good summary.

Suffice it to say “Bud” had a long history of stretching the envelope – and reckless behavior that endangered his life and the lives of those flying with him. Dr. Kern chronicles some of this reckless behavior (although he uses a different last name for the colonel throughout his book because Dr. Kern is a decent person) that had been going on for years prior to 1994. And while I am not a pilot, I do understand what keeps planes in the air and some of the incidents Bud was involved in give me the chills.

Reckless employees in public safety are a problem lying in wait that needs your attention as a supervisor or manager.

I have been using the story of Bud since 2000 to discuss reckless employees in public safety. In my live programs I refer to arrogant, ignorant, complacent employees as “Buds” in honor of the late Lt. Colonel who was convinced rules did not apply to him. The guy was reckless – everyone knew (including the base commander at Fairchild – more on that in a bit) – and no one did anything about it and the tragedy occurred. “It was not a matter of if, but rather a matter of when, where and how many people were going to die” was something Air Force investigators heard a lot – after the crash.

About 20 or so years ago I spoke about Bud in a class and a cop came up to me after the program and asked me if I had met Bud. I told him no. He was a co-worker of Bud’s at Fairchild in the early 1990s. He told me what a nice guy Bud was – but he agreed with me (and everyone else associated with Bud) that Bud was the personification of arrogance in the cockpit.

Not to bore you with the details on this, but on several other occasions audience members would come up to me and say something similar: “I knew him and I liked him – but you are right, he was reckless and everyone knew he would crash and burn someday.” One of these people who approached me was a relative of Bud’s. His example of totally reckless behavior was when “Uncle Bud” brought his B-52 for a low pass over the soccer field he was playing on.

I think it was about a decade ago that after my program finished I had a fellow come up (this is the fifth time this has happened) who had been a neighbor of Bud’s for quite a while. He was not angry at me, but I could tell he was very upset with my portrayal of Bud. He was adamant that I did not know the “full story.” So wanting to know the full story I asked him for the full story and we got into a lengthy chat.

Here is the gist of it. He said, “Bud was the nicest guy you ever wanted to meet – he would do anything for you. Great neighbor, church-going guy, nicest family in the entire world – they are just devastated. One day he and I were talking and he told me that if he ever crashed, they were going to blame it on him. He specifically said, ‘Stand by and remember that if I ever crash, they are going to put the whole thing on me.’ And yes, he did have a Corvette that he drove too fast, and yes he enjoyed driving his boat fast, and yes he was bragging about being the best stick-and-rudder man the Air Force ever had.” This fellow from my class was very upset with my portrayal of his friend.

I listened without interrupting and then said, “But you have to admit he was reckless and did not follow rules.” And he said, “But he was the nicest guy you ever wanted to meet and he would do anything for you.” Again I said, “But you admit he was reckless and did not follow rules.” And he said, “The family is still suffering from this tragedy – and he was the nicest guy you ever wanted to meet – and he told me that if he ever crashed they were going to pin the entire thing on him.”

And they did, with good justification I might add.

This exchange went on for a while until I finally ended it. The guy I was talking to was no idiot; he was a very smart guy. He just did not seem to get what I was saying. If you are in a high-risk job and keep violating safety rules and other protocols, sooner or later you are going to get in a heap of trouble. The laws of gravity and physics do not care about how “nice a guy” you are.

Four people died in 1994 because of the reckless behavior of this otherwise nice guy. This tragedy did not pop up out of the blue – it was “lying in wait” for quite a number of years. A lot of people knew about this problem and sadly no one did anything about it prior to the tragedy.

Why am I rambling about this? Here is the takeaway for you to consider: Do you have any “Buds” working for you? Bud may be a great individual – but sadly, he has a problem following rules. Bud can survive a day at Kmart, or even Dunkin Donuts. But Bud cannot survive in the USAF – or in any job in a high-risk profession.

Reckless employees in public safety are a problem lying in wait that needs your attention as a supervisor or manager. Dr. Kern calls people who fall into this category “rogues” – and they are present in every profession.

If you are in supervision or management, you may be asking, “Well, how can I identify Bud in my workplace? What is the algorithm or system to identify Bud?” There is no algorithm or system! But go back to when you were brand-new in public safety – still on probation and getting to learn the profession and how things work. When you looked at your co-workers way back then, did you know who Bud was? Did you recognize some employees who were convinced the department rules did not apply to them? Of course you knew who Bud was then! So now use the same eyes and identify and address Bud proactively.

The bane of civil service is that if you as a supervisor or manager take Bud on, you get paid “X” – and if you ignore Bud, you get paid the same amount of money. Then why should you take on Bud? Because that is your job and if you don’t feel comfortable doing it, then maybe you should reconsider why you accepted the promotion.

And if you are a co-worker and not a supervisor, it would be nice if you had a chat with Bud and got them headed in a different direction – because downstream after the tragedy everyone is going to be saying, “I wish I would have done something about this earlier – for now it is too late.”

Warnings Unheeded by Andy Brown is another book on my recommended reading list. I bought this book because it was also about Czar 52 – and I like to read different authors’ versions of the same event. Brown’s words about the crash and what led up to it are complementary to Kern’s account. But I also learned something new. Five days prior to the B-52 crash, a crazy airman went into the base hospital and shot the place up, killing four people and wounding 22 others.

The lesson learned: Several psychiatrists in the Air Force had been telling the base commander – the same base commander who ignored the warning signs about Bud – this airman was a “nutburger” and he was going to kill people. And yet those warnings – similar to the warnings about Bud – went unheeded. By the way, the author of this book was the military police officer who shot and killed the airman from 70 yards away – a fascinating story about someone who took his shooting training very seriously.

My word count has exceeded the limits of this writing – but there is so much more to say, so I will continue this thread on the dangers of reckless employees in public safety in my next article. Until then, please work safely.

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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