By Maj. Stephen Brack, Arkansas National GuardNovember 6, 2013
FORT RUCKER, Ala. (Nov. 6, 2013) - In the aviation community, we talk about safety all the time. It's evident that we put a greater emphasis on safety at work. For example, I would never start a flight across three states without first making arrangements to support the mission, such as knowing exactly where I was going to stop for fuel or stay overnight. Last summer, however, I took my family on a road trip to Albuquerque, N.M., and did just that.
The plan was to leave our home in Little Rock, Ark., on a Friday and arrive in Albuquerque by Sunday afternoon. As usual, I scheduled the overnight stops well in advance and made the necessary arrangements for hotels, which would allow me to drive no more than about five hours a day. My wife also researched activities we could do with the kids in the evenings at each location. With our itinerary set, all that was left was to execute. As we finished our last bit of packing Wednesday night, we decided we could easily move up our departure date by a day. This is where a series of bad decisions began.
Since our hotel reservations didn't start until Friday, I figured we would just leave when I got off work Thursday, drive until I started getting tired and then stop for the night at the closest Holiday Inn. That would give us a little more time to spend in Oklahoma City. It sounded like a win-win situation to me. After all, it was a Thursday night, and I was sure I'd have no problem finding a hotel along the way. Wrong!
I never considered that my last-minute plans would be thwarted by the Oklahoma City Thunder playing in the NBA playoffs. Between all the people in town to watch the playoffs, as well as a national softball tournament, there wasn't a hotel within 200 miles of Oklahoma City. Obviously, those folks had planned better than I. My decision to "shoot from the hip" and "see how far we can get" was quickly blowing up in my face.
The one bright spot was that my three boys, who ranged from 2 to 10 years old, were still engrossed in their Rescue Heroes DVD playing in the back seat. (A car DVD system is a fantastic invention.) But I knew it wouldn't last. Shortly after Rescue Heroes ended, it was time to switch to a DVD my youngest son would enjoy. That's when the complaining started.
We were about an hour from Oklahoma City and the boys were done! My wife was using every resource available on her phone to try to find us a hotel. Of course, nothing was showing up as available until Amarillo, Texas, and that was another 4½ hours down the road. By the time we rolled through Oklahoma City about 11 p.m., I was very tired. I was hoping we could find somewhere (anywhere!) to get some rest, but even the "roach coach" motels were boasting "NO VACANCY" signs. I felt as if I had no choice but to push on toward Amarillo.
I knew I was going to have to pull over and take some power naps along the way and maybe even ask my wife to drive for a little while. I would definitely need to stop and get some more caffeine too. Without really thinking about it, I went through the risk assessment process to minimize the hazards as much as I could. We pulled over when I needed to so I could grab a quick nap. My wife also helped by taking the wheel for a few minutes, but she was exhausted too. Eventually, we completed what should have been a 4½-hour trek to Amarillo in about six hours.
When I pulled in to check into the Holiday Inn in Amarillo at 5 a.m., I was worn out. The kids were just waking up and, aside from wondering why they were still in their car seats, were oblivious to what had been going on all night. Determined to not put ourselves in another dangerous situation on the road, we stayed at the hotel in Amarillo an extra night to let everyone recover and went on to Albuquerque Sunday as planned.
Aside from some grumpy travelers, a very tired mom and dad and the fact that I didn't get to go to the Bass Pro Shop in Oklahoma City, we were all OK. But when I look back at that trip, there are some things I obviously should have done differently. First and foremost, I should have stuck with the original plan to leave Friday, or we should have at least checked on lodging arrangements prior to departure. Instead, I managed to put four of the most important people in my world at risk.
For some reason, we just don't weigh the risks off duty the same as we do when at work. Yet, excluding deployments and training, we are only in the workplace for about one-third of our day. That leaves the remaining two-thirds of the day subject to unmanaged risk. Thankfully, we made it through just fine and went on to have a great trip. However, it could have easily ended differently.