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Safety Collaboration Doesn’t Stay in Vegas

May 21, 2013 -- Las Vegas Tower and Las Vegas TRACON had a local safety council before Local Safety Councils existed.

After serving as a beta facility and a guide for Partnership for Safety, along with eight other facilities, safety teams at the Las Vegas two facilities have continued to proactively identify and resolve safety issues through collaboration and substantial controller input.

The two facilities have turned to their simulators to help controllers prepare to handle unusual situations, said Stephen Lloyd, the air traffic manager at Las Vegas TRACON. To set up the simulator scenarios, the safety teams use a “mosaic” of their own quality control data, along with ideas from controllers and information from the Safety Portal set up by the Partnership for Safety.

The data portal makes local safety data and automated analysis tools available to Local Safety Councils, including the status of various trends and daily facility overviews.

Partnership for Safety is a joint effort between the FAA and NATCA that encourages employees to become actively engaged in identifying local hazards and developing safety solutions before incidents occur. As part of the effort, managers and NATCA representatives create a Local Safety Council at their facility.

The collaborative safety efforts at Las Vegas began after a safety incident involving an overtake at the tower a few years ago. To figure out how to prevent future incidents, the facility held a collaborative safety discussion.

That discussion continued into regular meetings and the creation of a collaborative safety team. Later, when Safety and Technical Training and NATCA began to establish Partnership for Safety, they looked at what Las Vegas and other facilities around the country were already doing and asked the facilities to serve as key sites for the program.

“They came to us and asked us how we were able to successfully collaborate to identify and address risk,” Lloyd said. “For us, it’s simple: Everything’s out in the open. We talk about everything that goes on.”

And talking often leads to better training.

Before the tower simulator system was installed at Las Vegas Tower, relatively rare events like go arounds were difficult for controllers to prepare for, said Wayne Niimi, the support manager at the tower.

Controllers’ only hands-on experience came while handling live traffic in the tower cab. Since rare situations only present rare opportunities to gain experience handling them, controllers’ skills could be rusty when such a situation occurred.

And classroom training only goes so far to get controllers ready. It certainly can’t replicate the pressures of a real event or develop the reflexes necessary to handle one safely.

“It was like trying to put a basketball team together without any practice time,” Niimi said. “When you were in the game was the only time you could practice.”

The simulator is now providing that practice time. Every three months, all the controllers at the tower go through refresher training in the simulator. A team of controllers and managers creates scenarios that cover issues controllers say they need more work on and items identified through operational skills assessments.

“Controllers are excited about the opportunity to use the simulator to sharpen their skills for unusual situations,” said Jamaal Haltom, the NATCA facility representative at Las Vegas Tower. “Situations that were previously only talked about, are now about to be modeled and practiced, and every level of controller is benefiting, from developmental to seasoned vet.”

During training sessions, the controllers have practiced handling go arounds and NORDO aircraft, and they’ve learned how their actions impact operations at the TRACON.

Practicing go arounds helps controllers to work on their recovery skills after separation is lost, one of the Top 5 hazards that contribute to risk identified by ATO Safety and Technical Training, Lloyd said.

“The results have been pretty spectacular in terms of controllers’ ability to handle a situation once separation is lost,” he said.

The tower’s safety team is also working to set up open sessions on the simulator for controllers. Once that’s arranged, controllers would be able to practice on a set of scenarios whenever trainees weren’t using the simulator. Niimi compared it to practicing free throws in an open gym.

The safety team over at the TRACON is following suit, soliciting ideas from controllers, studying safety data and setting up training to help controllers develop the skills to handle unusual situations.

“We go to the workforce and ask them what they need training on, what do they see as an issue,” said Chris Thomas, the NATCA facility representative at Las Vegas TRACON.

“Initially, we asked them for ideas,” he continued. “Now, people come to the safety committee and say, for example, ‘Last week, I was working a sector and I had to hold an airplane. I don’t ever hold airplanes at Las Vegas. I don’t think I know how to do that very well.’”

Thanks to that information, the safety team created simulator scenarios for controllers to practice holding. They’ve also conducted simulator training on the runway configuration that’s the least used of four options at the airport.

“It enhances everyone’s skills,” Lloyd said. “And that only makes our operations even safer.”

Information from the simulator sessions flows both ways, though.

“Out of these simulator scenarios, we’re learning a lot about what works and what’s not working,” Lloyd said.

The safety team is applying what they learn through those scenarios and collaborative discussion to make changes to the facilities’ letters of agreement and standard operating procedures. And that’s ensuring Las Vegas Tower and Las Vegas TRACON are handling their operations as safely as they can.