Checklists and Captain 'Sully' Sullenberger

Every first responder in the US is familiar with the Miracle on the Hudson. As a refresher, Flight 1549 took off from Laguardia Airport in New York, struck multiple birds and lost power in both engines. Captain 'Sully' Sullenberger and Skiles crash landed in the Hudson River saving all 150 passengers on board. For more details checkout the wikipedia page here or go pick up Sully - a feature length movie starring Tom Hanks about this very incident.

One of the last scenes in the movie shows Sully and Skiles in a hearing about the incident. The individuals leading the hearing are showing them evidence that the team flying the plane could indeed have landed the plane at one of the many nearby airports (back at Laguardia, Teterboro, etc). Sully realizes one thing that all the computer simulations and rehearsed manned simulations were not accounting for - the human factor. When they struck the birds, Sully and Stiles were forced into a situation that no human had ever dealt with before. They had a checklist to execute for loss of power but, as with most situations, that only covered 80% of their problem. The checklist couldn't weigh in the proximity to a densely populated area, the low altitude they were facing and countless other factors. There was no playbook to go by that exactly matched their unique situation. Similarly, first responders are constantly thrust into unknown situations where they must fallback to training and experience to make the best possible decision on how to proceed. Checklists codify that training and experience.

Sully wrote in an article in EMS World  a concise statement about the importance of checklists:

Checklists are a simple, inexpensive intervention that can formalize best practices when used properly—with leadership, team skills and in the appropriate culture. 

The purpose of recurring apparatus checks in the fire service is not just an exercise in safety and risk mitigation. They also serve as a standard way to get new first responders adapted to the layout of a truck and understand how to operate all the equipment on the truck. To test the pump a crew very likely needs to lay into a hydrant before engaging the pump. This repetitive practice ensures that, when faced with limited time and great amounts of unknown on an incident, the simple tasks become second nature.

Sully goes on to write the following:

It’s not the list itself that’s so effective. The list is simply a way to focus individual intention toward group goals. It’s a way of formalizing best practices. It’s a way of literally getting everyone on the same page.

Through the course of a seven day period, it could be up to 20-30 different first responders responsible for operating and up-keeping any given apparatus. As much as those shifts think of themselves as different 'teams' they are all unified in one goal - providing top notch emergency services to the people in their communities. Centralizing these checks into one place drives improved communication and accountability between shifts to ensure everybody is 'on the same page' about the state of their apparatus.

Sully lays out a compelling argument that checklists aren't merely an exercise in documentation, but more importantly an exercise in codifying best practices across a team.

How have checklists helped your department improve? Leave a comment below with your thoughts.