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Safety Check | Look It Up

Safety Check | May 2020
Friday, May 1, 2020

A highly respected rigger was visiting a drop zone and noticed a rig laid out on the packing floor after a jump. It caught his attention immediately because the excess on the cutaway cables was so short that the ends did not reach the stow channel. The somewhat curled yellow ends stuck out like a sore thumb. The rigger brought it to a local rigger’s attention, who brought the problem—and the risk of an unintended cutaway—to the attention of the rig owner.

The riggers looked up the manufacturer’s specification for cable length and suggested a fix. The rig owner was appreciative of their concern, but responded, “I wondered about that and asked my rigger, but he said it was fine. So, I’ll get a second opinion.” The riggers pointed out that she was already receiving a second and third opinion from two experienced riggers, as well as information from the manufacturer. So, what led to this distrust of authority that is so common in the skydiving community? What can we do as individuals to check ourselves? And what can we do as a community to improve our overall safety culture?

With greater access to information through online sources, everyone has enjoyed an amazing increase in individual knowledge. Consequently, the base level of knowledge that entry-level skydivers possess has increased tremendously. An unintended side effect is information overload. Due to the sheer volume of available information, valid information can get lost in the clutter of opinion and mixed with unresearched “facts.” A Google search yields the most popular information, not always the most correct.

Another contributing factor is an ever-growing anti-establishment culture (and skydivers were already anti-establishment before it was a thing). Trusting yourself more than others is also a tenet of the personal growth industry, but the confidence and personal growth that accompanies our sport has caused some to grow delusional about their abilities and knowledge.

The fact is, as individuals, we are often wrong. The idea of trusting your Jedi feelings makes for great movie scripts but is not very reliable in reality. Strongly attaching to an idea and ignoring evidence—whether due to gut feelings, because it has always been that way or because a mentor said so—is a sure way of staying wrong. Base your assessment of whether information is correct or incorrect on facts rather than an emotional attachment to an idea. Consider where the information is coming from and the reputation and experiences of that source.

What does it feel like to be wrong? It feels exactly like being right. You only perceive the difference after you realize you’re wrong.  Arguably the most critical habit an individual can foster to see the most improvement is simply being aware that the possibility of being wrong exits. Yet, when ideas are at odds and an individual has a choice to trust someone else’s viewpoint, they tend to favor their own interpretation, even if the other person is someone with legitimate credentials and time in sport. The bottom line is simply to be open to new ways of thinking, because changes always occur and where you may have once been right, you may now be wrong.

Although individual change is hard, a cultural change—challenging entrenched, systemic dogma—is harder. This is due to a quintessential human characteristic: resisting change not initiated by one’s self. Yet change is inevitable, and referencing the collective body of knowledge (to which individuals contribute) is powerful.

Our current clearinghouses of knowledge in skydiving are USPA, gear manufacturers, the Parachute Industry Association and any professional body that collects information and is in a position to sort through trends. We can each contribute to the body of knowledge by submitting incident reports, passing along knowledge and asking questions. This collected knowledge allows us to say to someone who is confronting a safety issue such as the too-short cutaway cables: “Don’t make it up—Look it up!”

When it comes to improving safety, it takes more than keeping an eye out for rigging mishaps. It begins in the mind and heart. Embrace an attitude of awareness to balance both your own experience and the community body of knowledge, filtering out emotion or ego. Develop the habit of checking and looking up vetted information instead of going from memory or the memory of others. The long and short of it: Trust but verify.

Jen Sharp | D-17516, Coach Examiner, Tandem Instructor Examiner, AFF and Static-Line Instructor, PRO
FAA Master Rigger

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