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The “normalization of deviance”

“The deaths of four members of the Belize Defence Force are a tragedy that has shocked Belize. It was not just soldiers who died that night; they were comrades, husbands, friends and brothers. Let their deaths not be in vain.”

Dear Editor,
I must express my most heartfelt condolences to the families of the four Belize Defence Force officers and soldiers who lost their lives tragically in last month’s crash. These officers and soldiers represented the best of the BDF, having taken on and excelled in the difficult field of military aviation.

I met the officers when they first joined the BDF, and I saw them grow from unsure and nervous officer cadets to confident and proud senior officers in the Force. I did not know the two Corporals, but I am certain that they were professionals of the highest calibre. These soldiers are gone too soon, but they will never be forgotten.

The circumstances surrounding their deaths on the morning of February 28, 2020, will be discovered by the diverse team of investigators tasked with this important job. Hopefully, they will be able to provide answers to the questions that we all have: why did the helicopter embark on a night mission without the necessary equipment, why did no one in the BDF maintain constant radio contact with the aircraft, why was the alarm raised hours later and why was there no coordination with the ground units of police and BDF personnel?

They may provide answers to the biggest question of all – why did these soldiers die? As much as I would like to have answers, I know that their families need and deserve to know. The investigations, it is hoped, will bring some comfort to the wives, children, brothers, sisters, mothers and fathers of these four soldiers.

As I listened to the Ministry of National Security’s press conferences, I could not help but notice parallels between this incident and past events such as the 1986 Shuttle Challenger disaster. Statements such as “The helicopters aren’t equipped with night vision; however, the pilots do conduct night flying, especially along the coast”, “the only time they would usually radio in is when there is a situation and so when they didn’t radio in by evening yesterday, there was no reason for alarm” and “it’s what we use because it’s what we can afford to use,” are troubling to me, as they indicate the existence of a culture in the Belize Defence Force that accepts these types of errors and procedural errors as normal.

Diane Vaughn, an investigator in the Challenger disaster, coined the term “normalisation of deviance” and defined it as “the gradual process through which unacceptable practice or standards become acceptable. As the deviant behaviour is repeated without catastrophic results, it becomes the social norm for the organisation.”

Do the statements above hint to the existence of the normalization of deviance in our armed forces and did this play a role in this crash? Were there any procedures or policies which had been overlooked over time to the point of being deemed irrelevant or unnecessary? Were there any errors in Force Headquarters or the Air Wing, which were accepted as normal over time?

It is my hope that the investigations will go beyond the physical evidence to discover the root causes of this accident. If these are identified (as they should), then it is my hope that the Belize Defence Force takes immediate steps to address and halt the normalization of deviance. There are many past examples in all units of the BDF which can be cited to highlight the existence and prevalence of deviant behaviour, and unfortunately, several of these have resulted in the death of soldiers.

After this tragedy, the Belize Defence Force cannot go back to business as usual. It must take immediate steps to improve.

I also hope that the investigators examine the safety culture at the Air Wing and at Force Headquarters. Safety culture, defined as “the set of assumptions, and their associated practices, which permit beliefs about danger and safety to be constructed”, can be looked at in two ways —either as something an organization is (its beliefs, attitudes and values regarding safety), or as something that an organization has (structures, practices, controls and policies designed to enhance safety).

A good safety culture is one in which managers at all levels are highly committed to safety, where the workforce express satisfaction with and adherence to the organization’s safety system; where everyone is risk-averse; where there is no pressure towards maximizing profits at the expense of safety, and where operators as well as managers are highly qualified and competent.

A poor safety culture can be described simply as the obverse of a good one: exhibiting organisational errors and violations of operating procedures. What is the state of the Belize Defence Force’s safety culture? How did the organization’s safety culture impact the decisions made by the pilots on that fateful night? How did it impact the decisions made at the Joint Operations Centre?

This theme may be outside the scope of the accident investigation, but I predict that all the investigations will provide hints and insights into safety culture in the Belize Defence Force. I posit that the reports will indicate an inadequate safety culture, which will reinforce what many past and currently serving members of the BDF already know about safety in the organization.

Although the military profession is high-risk and dangerous, this view cannot be used as an excuse for having low safety standards.

The deaths of four members of the Belize Defence Force are a tragedy that has shocked the country of Belize and will stay with us for a very long time. Many Belizeans continue to sympathize with the families and with their brothers and sisters in arms. It was not just soldiers who died that night; they were comrades, husbands, friends and brothers. Let their deaths not be in vain.

I sincerely hope that the good that comes from this loss is a safer and more responsible Belize Defence Force.

Shoulder to Shoulder!

Daniel Mendez, MSc, Captain (retired)

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