Teamwork When It Counts Most: CRM


Firemen Spraying Flames

Recently Ellen and I had the privilege of presenting a workshop on communication and teambuilding at the annual meeting of the New York State Fire Chiefs association.  We were scheduled for the end of the day (a Friday) – at the same time as a wine and hors d’oeuvre reception.  Our expectations:  low turnout and restless participants.  Were we surprised—a full room and an engaged audience.

As we started, a participant noted that a survey of issues in member fire departments identified “communication” as their top concern.  That didn’t surprise us—it’s usually first or second in almost any organization.  But, we were struck that only one participant was familiar with Crew Resource Management (CRM).

CRM addresses safety, operational effectiveness, and efficiency by emphasizing communication, teamwork, coordination, and situational awareness, especially in environments where mistakes and errors can have disastrous consequences.  CRM seeks to integrate the influence of human factors with technology, the situational environment, and identifies barriers to effective teamwork and decision making—an approach to organizational development we have long used—applied specifically to safety.

A bit of history:  CRM originated in aviation, and first referred to “cockpit resource management”.   Investigation of crashes like the 1977 runway collision in Tenerife between KLM Flight 4805 and Pan Am Flight 1736 (killing over 580 passengers and crew—the worst in aviation history) and the Portland Oregon crash of United Airlines Flight 173 (killing 10 of 189 occupants) identified a number of human error factors as the main culprits.  These factors included unclear language, misinterpreted communication, poor situation awareness, and cockpit culture (especially the inability of crew members to get relevant information through to the pilot).   The Aviation Safety Network concludes its summary report of the UA 173 crash as follows:

[Causes were] the failure of the captain to monitor properly the aircraft’s fuel state and to properly respond to the low fuel state and [to] the crewmember’s advisories regarding fuel state. This resulted in fuel exhaustion to all engines. [The pilot’s] inattention resulted from preoccupation with a landing gear malfunction and preparations for a possible landing emergency. Contributing to the accident was the failure of the other two flight crewmembers either to fully comprehend the criticality of the fuel state or to successfully communicate their concern to the captain.

Once it became clear to investigators that flight safety responses needed to include ground crews, mechanics, and others; the term CRM was broadened to its current meaning–Crew Resource Management.  As  safety experts learned about CRM principles they adopted the approach for use in other industries and work environments, from firefighting to hospitals. We at People Working Consultants see CRM resting on four pillars:

  • Training and practice
  • Communication and coordination
  • Teamwork
  • Continuous improvement of policies, practices, and technology

We also see CRM as a process that occurs in two interrelated contexts:  “Situational” and “Off Line”.

Situational CRM refers to implementation of identified principles, best practices, skills and communication behaviors as critical work is being done (e.g., flying, performing surgery, trauma  care, and fighting a fire).  CRM factors include (but are not limited to)

  • Situational awareness and flexibility
  • Operational decision making and conflict management
  • Roles and responsibilities
  • Standard practices
  • Leadership and followership
  • Coordination and communication
  • Decision making and conflict management

Off Line CRM refers to activities such as planning, debriefs, problem solving, process improvement, practice and other activities designed to strengthen team cohesiveness and skills.

As I finish this post, I’m catching a report on recommendations regarding the crash 5 years ago of Colgan Air Flight 3407 in Buffalo, NY.  Again, inadequate cognitive, personal and skills combined with substandard technical knowledge and skills were noted as contributing conditions.

CRM training encompasses a wide range of knowledge, skills, and behaviors including communications, problem solving, decision making, and teamwork; precisely the focus of People Working Consultants.  Let’s talk.


Posted by Jim.


Comments are closed.