Public Service, Regulatory

Public Safety Notebook: Good Training, Made Better

By Lee Benson | August 1, 2007
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FIRST OF ALL, I WOULD LIKE TO thank Rotor & Wing for giving me the opportunity to write this column. Since I recently retired from the Los Angeles County Fire Dept., this column will allow me to stay connected to the helicopter industry I truly love.

I’m sure my college freshman English teacher is now spinning from laughter in her grave faster than the N1 section in a C20 turbine. That woman refused to acknowledge I had any writing ability. Come to think of it, for some reason that opinion was shared by several of my past supervisors.

My topic for the month is the Helicopter Assn. International’s excellent series of courses offered at Heli-Expo each year. I have had the opportunity to attend almost all the courses offered on the operations side. Each proved worthwhile. The instructors were leading professionals in their subject area. Several of the courses included guest speakers.


The two safety courses HAI offers should be a prerequisite for the person functioning as your organization’s safety officer. They give the prospective safety officer a set of tools for managing risk in flight and ground operations. Much of what we do in the public-service segment, and a great deal in the commercial helicopter industry, has a "greater good" component to it. Yes, we fly the mission because that’s what we are paid to do. But I think it’s the pressure to save the child or help your fellow officer get the bad guy that really drives each of us to extend the envelope. This "greater good" mentality is one of the cornerstones of public service. This is where a well-managed safety program, run by a well-trained safety officer, that looks at risk versus gain in a detached manner can be of value.

The course the staff at L.A. County Fire seemed to get the most from was "Flying in The Wire and Obstruction Environment." Gary Bertz, my boss at the time, and I attended the class together. Between the two of us, we probably had 60 years of utility helicopter flying. We were both amazed at the simple things that we never knew about powerline construction, and, more importantly, how this newfound knowledge could be used to mitigate some of the risk associated with flying at low levels in a wire environment.

Those of us who fly onshore work in a wire environment. (Well, maybe the crews up in Barrow, Alaska can relax.) If your organization’s mission profile includes operations in the wire environment, I highly recommend this course for your flight staff, including officers, paramedics, and nurses that fly up front with you. It is not professional to conduct operations and ignore the assets represented by additional crewmembers as a resource during takeoffs and landings at off-site locations. As a self-imposed standard, I always called out the wires I saw before landing to the crewmembers onboard and expected a response from at least the paramedic in the front left seat. As I used to admonish the very few crewmembers who were in the front seat with me and not paying attention during landings and takeoffs, "If we crash, you will arrive at the accident scene at the same time as I do."

The one suggestion I have for HAI concerns the management course it offers. I have attended the course and gotten a lot out of it. The professional contacts I established were worth the effort. The level of instruction in this course was as good as or better than my classes in aeronautics at San Jose State College in California.

The problem for the attendee from the public sector is the course’s absolutely necessary emphasis on profit-and-loss issues. What I would like to see is a separate course for public and non-profit operators. (That’s non-profit as in charity. Some of you unfortunately will get the small pun.)

In this proposed public-operations management course, the profit-and-loss section of the current course would be replaced with subjects like budget management, project management, and power-by-the-hour programs. I suspect the demand for this course could not support scheduling this event on a yearly basis. But there’s no way to know that until the course is offered. In preparation for this article, I talked with Nicole Sonberg, the manager of education programs for HAI. She indicated the idea of a separate public-operations management course is worth considering.

HAI’s board of directors considers any changes in curriculum for the courses offered. Like many things in life, the board listens best when many voices are heard, not just an article in a magazine. Several people have approached me about the idea of a public-operator’s management course over the years. Now is the time to step up. E-mail Sonberg at if you support this idea.

She also reminded me that several of the courses that HAI offers are also offered at sites and times other than Heli-Expo. You can find a schedule of these events on the education section of the HAI web site ( HAI also plans to add new courses from time to time.

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