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New Army safety boss seeks soldier feedback

The Army recorded the smallest number of accidental soldier deaths in fiscal year 2013 since it started tracking the statistic in 1975. Last fiscal year, the figure went even lower, dropping from 136 to 127.

The Army's new safety boss has been on the job about three months and already has plans to keep the trend heading downward. But he could use some help, especially when it comes to spreading the safety message.

While the Army Combat/Readiness Safety Center's outreach efforts include everything from coordinated seasonal awareness campaigns to messages direct from top leaders to social media blitzes, "I have less than the desired capability I need to understand how well we're penetrating the demographic we're trying to influence," said Brig. Gen. Jeffrey Farnsworth, who serves as both director of Army safety and commander of the safety center.

"I've got to find a way to get the soldiers to help me solve this problem. What solutions do they have to cut down on motorcycle losses, to cut down on the kinds of ... overconfidence or complacency that leads to accidents on or off duty? What do soldiers want to tell me?"

Soldiers can address their ideas to Farnsworth at https://safety.army.mil/safetyfeedback. But not every safety effort will be crowd-sourced.

Teams at Army installations in Europe and some stateside bases (Forts Hood and Bliss in Texas, Kansas' Fort Riley and Colorado's Fort Carson) are assessing motorcycle safety programs. Motorcycle fatalities dropped from 40 in fiscal 2013 to 34 last fiscal year, but they remain the top cause of off-duty soldier deaths, at more than 35 percent of the total.

The review will look at the entire operation, Farnsworth said: "Are we meeting the standards that we already have? Or should standards change? ... I wish I had a silver bullet, where we could say, 'If we do this, we could reduce motorcycle loss.'"

Farnsworth also wants to change accident investigations to get actionable information into commanders' hands faster. Part of that process involves securing better equipment for investigation teams, he said.

Beyond accident reporting, Farnsworth plans to "reshape [the center's] workforce to be more of a commander support agency," lifting some of the accident-analysis burden from leaders' already-crowded plates.

"I can help alleviate some of the pressure on our battalion, brigade and division commanders by helping them identify where their highest risks are and how to mitigate those," he said. "Be an extra set of eyes and ears."

Goals and challenges

Even before the safety center compiled final figures for fiscal 2014, a memo from Army Chief of Staff Gen. Ray Odierno and Army Secretary John McHugh outlined safety goals for 2015:

  • Drop private motor vehicle fatalities by 10 percent from the fiscal 2013 total. The 17 percent uptick in such deaths from fiscal '13 to fiscal '14 (from 23 to 27) was the only off-duty category to see an increase.
  • Drop overall injuries in the "other" category by 10 percent from fiscal 2013 figures. This includes a range of areas but primarily sports injuries, something Farnsworth said he wants to address, but understands can be nearly unavoidable — and, in cases like combatives training or competitive sporting contests, expected.
  • Keep Class A aviation mishaps (those involving death or permanent disability, loss of an aircraft or missile, or $2 million or more in damages) under one per 100,000 flight hours and reduce accidents caused by spatial disorientation or a degraded visual environment by half from fiscal 2013. Tackling this will involve more and better training, Farnsworth said, but he's also seeking technological solutions that could range from improved sensors to vibration-based systems that would allow crew members to "feel" certain information instead of trusting their already-taxed eyes.
  • Reduce civilian injuries, targeting common problems like equipment handling and "slips, trips and falls."

Achieving these goals, Farnsworth said, will be more difficult as the wars conclude and the nature of missions change.

"As we draw the force down from Afghanistan, what happens is, your exposure to risk back in the garrison ... is higher now," he said. " You've got more soldiers there. You have a higher instance of off-duty accidents."

There's also the matter of budget cuts: Odierno frequently has expressed concerns that the force's readiness could be in jeopardy, and Farnsworth sees increased safety efforts as key to protecting the future, smaller force.

"Readiness is essential to meet the challenges to win in a complex world," he said. "Safety underpins that readiness. ... Accidents, by definition, are preventable. It hurts extra when you have that kind of [lean manning] situation."

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