Saturday, January 24, 2009

Not a Miracle: Science, Training, Experience and Unions Trump the Sky Wizard

1: an extraordinary event manifesting divine intervention in human affairs
2: an extremely outstanding or unusual event, thing, or accomplishment
- Merriam-Webster Dictionary

The near-perfect ditching of Flight 1549 last week and the almost casualty-free rescue of its passengers and crew was not a miracle. Nope, not even by that second definition.

Rather, it was perfect vindication for those of us who put our faith not in invisible sky wizards, but in science and technology, big-government regulation, union-demanded training and experience, professionalism and humanity.

Rachel Maddow opened her show the day after the "crash" emphasizing just this reality.

It is good fortune and individual skill and heroism and pluck that explains yesterday‘s happy ending, but it is also testament to us having some good systems and some good institutions in place—to mitigate damage, to maximize people‘s options in worst-case scenarios, to ensure that people who could encounter worst-case scenarios are trained to deal with them, to respond quickly, to avoid panic.

These systems, professional accreditations, regulations, code enforcement, disaster preparedness, training, equipment, you know what this stuff is? This is the backbone of our national resilience—our ability to handle the unexpected, to be ready for worst-case scenarios, to react with speed and intelligence, to be able to react effectively when disaster strikes.

This type of resilience does not happen on its own. It is the product of us investing in being resilient as a nation and communities. And that kind of investment is often overlooked, it‘s taken for granted until something like this incredibly dramatic story happened like it did yesterday, until an airplane blows out two engines over the Bronx somewhere and winds up gliding just barely over the George Washington Bridge and coming down safely into a New York City river.

So, as all of the inevitable and necessary “what went wrong” investigations get underway now, it may also be smart and useful to look at what went right yesterday. What we can learn from what happened. How we can use those lessons to become a more resilient country.

Her guest, Stephen Flynn, a retired Coast Guard officer, senior fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations and author of "The Edge of Disaster: Rebuilding a Resilient Nation" elaborated:

And all of this basically suggests how important it is that we think about being prepared as a society and investing in the kinds of things that we must have when things go wrong, because they do go wrong from time to time. What a contrast this was—wasn‘t it—between the president, last night, giving a speech, taking credit for seven years of keeping us safe from another act of terror, there‘s no question that that‘s a good thing.

But all the things that we saw on display in New York harbor yesterday were not things that we‘ve been investing at the federal level. And we haven‘t spending a lot of time building the local capability. We haven‘t spent a lot of time informing citizens of what to do when thing go wrong. We haven‘t done the kinds of training, and in some cases, regulation we need to make sure that things that are really critical in our society bend but don‘t break when things go wrong from time to time.

Slate's "Ask the Pilot" Patrick Smith provides a probable tick-tock of the crash, emphasizing the crew skills that made a "miracle" unnecessary.

I'm rather uneasy at calling them heroes. Nothing they did was easy, but on the whole they did what they had to do, what they were trained to do, and what, we should hope, most other crews would have done in that same situation. I reckon Sullenberger and Skiles would readily admit as much. Not out of false modesty but out of due respect for their colleagues everywhere. It was not heroics that saved the day; it was, to use a word I normally dislike, professionalism.

And remember this:

Captain Sullenberger, First Officer Skiles and the three flight attendants are all members of strong, independent unions. Captain Sullenberger was the chair of the Airline Pilots Association's safety training committee. He also had served many times on accident investigation teams deployed by the National Transportation Safety Board, a federal government regulatory agency.

So the next time somebody bitches about big unions and big government, tell them that the 150 people on Flight 1549 have the power of unions and the power of federal government regulation to thank for their lives.

Cross-posted at They Gave Us A Republic ....