Understanding & Preventing Public Safety Mistakes

Cicero once said, “To err is human, but to persevere in error is only the act of a fool.” While many people accept mistakes as an unavoidable part of life – and the job – errors in public safety can easily lead to tragedy. Time constraints and situational pressure place even more stress on the decision-making process, often leading to more and greater mistakes. So, what do you do when operating in environments where “error is unacceptable”?

If you can understand and identify mistakes, you can prevent them. As risk management expert Gordon Graham says, “Predictable is preventable.” Ideally, you can avoid errors altogether, and when necessary, you can correct quickly and prevent tragedy.

The Nature of Mistakes

Many tragedies that occur in public safety arise out of error – and mistakes are overrepresented in high-risk, low-frequency events when personnel have very little time to think, process and make decisions. Additionally, making one mistake leads to more. Dr. Tony Kern, an expert in human performance and CEO of Convergent Performance, explains, “You’re most likely to make a fatal mistake right after you’ve made a routine mistake.”

The reaction to a “routine mistake,” in an ideal situation, will reflect the magnitude of the error itself. But in efforts to correct, personnel often commit further mistakes. It’s important to note that errors following the initial misstep manifest themselves quickly and can be the catalysts to tragedy. Identifying what the routine mistakes are can help you prevent the errors themselves, but when errors do occur, being prepared to control your reaction can help prevent tragedy.

Violations and Errors

In a study of commercial airline pilots, the number of mistakes in a given flight increased exponentially with each additional policy violation. This carries serious weight for the public safety industry as well. Central to preventing public safety mistakes is staying compliant. Understanding agency policy and consistently training on it is integral to avoiding errors and subsequent tragedies.

For high-risk, low-frequency situations, it is key to use all the time available to make the best decisions possible, avoiding mistakes and tragedy.

Sometimes, the errors themselves can lead to violations. Other times, situational and time pressure mean routine procedures and checklists are skipped. Complacency, a frequent culprit of violations, results in laziness and failure to adhere to policy. With the knowledge a violation has taken place, personnel “can no longer use their intuitive powers to recognize when things aren’t right,” Dr. Kern states. When individuals’ patterns are broken, more mistakes are bound to be made.

Preventing Public Safety Mistakes

Preventing mistakes in public safety starts with sharpening decision-making skills. In every situation, Graham suggests the first step of the decision-making process be “Do I have time to think?” If the answer is “yes,” then use the time to plan before moving into action. Slowing down the situation lessens the time pressure and allows for better, and more compliant, decisions. Recognize the importance of drawing on your experience – most of what you do, you have experience in. For high-risk, low-frequency situations where your experience is lacking, it is key to use all the time available to you to make the best decisions possible.

“Identify the cause and then build control measures to prevent bad things from happening,” Graham explains. Managing risk and preventing mistakes in public safety are centered around determining the root cause and developing a proper response. Many factors contribute to a comprehensive strategy to avoid errors and respond to them appropriately, including training, on-the-job experience, policies and best practices.

To learn more from Gordon Graham and Dr. Tony Kern about the role of training, professionalism and shared knowledge in preventing errors, view the on-demand webinar: When Error Is Not Acceptable: How to Make Safer Decisions When Lives & Minutes Count.

Lexipol Team

Lexipol provides public safety and local government with solutions that combine the impact of information with the power of technology. We serve more than 2 million first responders and local government officials with policies, training, wellness resources, grant assistance, and news and analysis.

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