Saturday, May 12, 2012

Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) calls for training halt: Driving home that training safety message

All the training halts in the world will not help the Singapore Armed Forces (SAF) improve training safety, until and unless everyone in uniform takes that message to heart.

SAF regulars, Operationally Ready National Servicemen and full-time National Servicemen can achieve impressive results in training and workplace safety as shown by the clean record of zero training deaths that every active and NS personnel achieved in 2010.

The drive to do so again cannot come top down. Putting aside the image of the SAF, the effort of every person in uniform in observing the safety first mindset will prevent heartbreaks among camp mates, family and friends. 

Safest year for SAF despite high ops tempo
The safety milestone in 2010 was achieved despite a high operational tempo in Singapore and training arrangements for SAF land, air and naval forces in faraway places that resulted in some form of military training taking place round the world and round-the-clock every day of the year. Some training took place in harsh environments with weather conditions that Singaporeans are not used to. War games, some of which included combined live-fire exercises, were carried out with foreign forces that SAF personnel did not know personally. Despite thousands of live rounds being fired, the SAF's intensive training calendar never resulted in a fatal incident in 2010.

Add to this operational deployments in places like Afghanistan, where SAF personnel had to contend with an unfamiliar area of operations and hostile forces out to kill without remorse. But all who served came home safely.

On home ground, the Ops Bascinet deployments in 2010 safeguarded key installations such as our airport, port and oil refining infrastructure and other places of vital interest. Singapore Army units tasked with Protection of Installation and coastal surveillance were armed with live ammunition and shoot-to-kill protocols. But every Bascinet patrol was carried out safely that year.

The year 2010 also demanded an increased SAF presence when thousands of foreign visitors flew in for the Singapore Airshow and the Singapore Formula 1 night race. In addition, SAF and Home Team forces provided security cover for defence chiefs from the region and nuclear-armed powers when they gathered in Singapore for the Shangri-La Dialogue. National Day 2010 at the Padang was another security tasking, not just at the NDP venue but island-wide as celebrations moved into the heartlands. Countless hours of preparations by declared SAF units such as CBRE forces and low-key units helped keep the island safe during these taskings.

Our armed forces paid a heavy price to achieve that unprecedented safety record in 2010.

The year 2009 was a tragic year for SAF training safety with an all-time high of 10 training deaths recorded from January to December 2009.

So what is the secret behind this dramatic drop in training deaths from a most tragic year to the safest year on file?

Could it be that the steady stream of death announcements turned out to be an effective wake-up call for the SAF? Alas, the NSFs who served in 2009 and 2010 have all left the SAF, taking with them precious lessons that the current batch of NSFs are learning once again.

How many times do we need to sit down and reflect on training safety before that message is driven home?

Would an online repository of past training incidents, BOI/COI reports as well as near misses help Singaporeans learn, absorb and apply that safety first mindset better?

Training time-out
The ongoing training time-out is an invaluable opportunity for all in uniform to think about their responsibility to themselves, their co-workers and loved ones. 

Helplines for soldiers who have personal problems, if not dialed in, are of no help to those in distress. After 45 years handling NSFs, almost every personal problem and crisis you can think of has been heard by sympathetic professionals who are trained and have a proven track record in mending broken hearts and unsettled lives. So help is at hand for those who need it.

Whether you believe our fate on this planet is determined by God, kismet or the brutal statistics of number of fatalities per training hours, your personal commitment to safety is something well within one's control.

When that training time-out expires, SAF personnel must put in their best effort in improving the safety culture.

This best effort will not guarantee zero training deaths. But it will at least help SAF personnel avoid the pain, tears and tragedy of preventable accidents.


Anonymous said...

There is an inherent weakness with the imposition of safety time out only when a tragic training incident happens. Appointment holders come and go, so do NSFs based on quarterly intake patterns. Precious lessons learnt, reasonably speaking, would be impossible to transfer fully to the new commanders and new enlisted soldiers.

What could perhaps be done better is to make the safety time out a sanctioned periodic event. Quarterly frequency seems to be right to overlap with intake patterns. Given the high training and operational tempo and relatively fast turnover of commanders, setting aside a full day dedicated to review safety, share lessons learnt, as well as reinforcing command leadership and presence cannot be seen as a poor investment of time.

Loss of a life is just one too many, especially during peacetime training and where it is preventable.

David Boey said...

Hi Anonymous,
I agree. The trigger point for training halts seems to be SAF fatalities that are bunched together, rather than having the system initiate the kind of review described in your 9:51.

For example, the record 10 training deaths in 2009 did not trigger a training halt (at least none were reported) as deaths were spread out throughout the year.

Best regards,


PeterLim said...

I think the RSN and the RSAF do have safety day instituted every month, to review and discuss safety lesson learnt for the month.

Re-minisce said...

and do you think it's enough?

Anonymous said...

I have an interesting question. It was reported that the deceased and the injured front passenger "were wearing their seat belts and remained within the vehicle at the time of the incident" and "The left rear passenger was found away from the vehicle unharmed."

Does this mean he was not wearing his seat belt? Do you think he will be charged for not doing so and hence for surviving the crash?

David Boey said...

Hi Anonymous at 12:20PM (14 May),
Interesting point indeed.

This is something for our elected representatives to ask, for our media to enquire or for MINDEF/SAF to volunteer the information to spread awareness of TSRs.

Best regards,


Anonymous said...

I hope the answer will be known soon. The public deserves as significant numbers of NSFs serve as drivers or vehicle crewmen. MINDEF can hardly be expected to shed light what must be a touchy subject.

We are all familiar with summary sentences that are "take it if you know what's good for you." We can hardly expect the outcome to make the press. If I were that crewman, I would be thinking very hard about what version of events to tell the investigators. Not necessarily a false one but one that will ensure my surviving.

Anonymous said...

A good write up. If u notice, accidents always happen when people least expect.

Anonymous said...

Perhaps another issue is the nature of the Gen-Y NSFs. I regularly interact with them, and the level of discipline has fallen, while self-confidence has increased. All this is a decade, not even a generation. They do not necessarily fear authority as much, and therefore do not always think of the repercussions of their actions. This typically manifests itself in answering back. Rightly or wrongly, doesn't matter. But there's a general belief that they know just as well, if not better.

This also shows up in attitudes towards instruction, or things which are "common sense." It's as if they're above all that. You can nag TSR to them till blood comes out of their ears, but if choose not to listen, it's no bloody good. And how open you are to listening, even if it's stuff you already know, really depends on discipline and respect. If you think you're "too cool for school" and do not fear repercussions, accidents will happen.

There is a limit to how accommodating you should be with Gen-Y (or Gen Why). I think the SAF has taken all this two-way learning organisation business too far. There is definitely a place for that, but this is the army. Know your place, listen up, shut up and just do it.

Anonymous said...

Gen-Ys will give you total obedience when it comes to a fear of punishment, such as in the SAF. They do not believe in sticking their necks out for nothing. If you want them to do it the safe way, they will give you just that.

Problem arise when they are given targets they cannot meet, anyone will have to cut corners. Gen-Ys in particular are quicker to learn than previous generations, you have to ask if instruction is clear in the first place.

And if you think Gen-Ys are less motivated, our leaders must answer to all generations the question of who and what they are serving to protect.

I would support any NSF in pushing back where regulars are unreasonable, some of whom give out punishments like nothing while hiding behind the veil of secrecy. Which Gen-Y will and should stand for that? People like that should know what's coming.

Anonymous said...

David, training time outs are good. But that policy assumes nothing is wrong in the greater system, and if training deaths have been elevated since 2009 or whenever it is, then something *is* wrong.

We *must* overhaul the PES system and the IPPT scoring standards system. I find it pretty amazing that our NS men, who work 45+ hour weeks (many countries in Europe have 35-40 hour weeks), are subject to the same physical standards as the regular professional soldiers of the same age, for whom it is a professional obligation to be fit. It is an accident waiting to happen when a pot-bellied 30-something chap who hasn't exercised much in a year tries to overexert himself in order to avoid 20-odd RT sessions. Luckily, most NS men at RT don't exert themselves all that much, but it only takes one determined man to make one more unjustified training death.

Even the basic IPPT exercises can be overhauled. The US Army's fitness test is simple - situps, pushups, and a 2 mile run. The first two at least don't need specialised equipment or venues (eg for chinups and broad jump), so you can practice a little when you have a few spare minutes, say in front of the telly at home.

It's funny how the SAF can undertake some pretty sweeping organisational changes every 2-3 years to further the career of some young BG, rather than to take on smaller, more practical, but no less meaningful efforts that can save a few lives.

Asthmatics are also in particular danger in the SAF, because there are plenty of things that can trigger it, and not just exercise, which they primarily test for. A friend of mine has asthma triggered by certain types of grass. Unfortunately, his doctor did not specify what type of asthma it was, and the SAF made him do an asthma test for exercise induced asthma, which he passed. My friend was pretty lucky in hindsight to have a bad training injury and get down PESed before he even had his field camp.

Anonymous said...

Lucky friend you have. But CPT Choy will accuse him of being a Jeremy Ko, for not giving his all.