Lackland academy teaches service-wide safety

  • Published
  • By Staff Sgt. Vincent Borden
  • 37th Training Wing Public Affairs
The last incident Tech. Sgt. John Skelton was involved in nearly ended his Air Force career before it ever truly got started. 

An aircraft structural maintainer at the time, Sergeant Skelton was exposed to hazardous chemicals in his workplace that, over months of repeated exposure, caused him to become sensitized to its vapors. 

His body's resistance to it culminated in a final fit of acute respiratory distress; all of a sudden, he felt as if an invisible hand was squeezing the life out of him. He struggled to regain his breath, surrounded by fellow Airmen confused at his plight and nearly clueless as how to make it stop. 

Sergeant Skelton is surrounded by a different group of Airmen now; namely, students who attend the Safety Academy at Lackland Air Force Base. There, he teaches the safety craftsman course, a curriculum focusing on creating clarity on safety principles and guidelines, instead of confusion. But the coincidence of his past experience and his current profession isn't lost on him. 

"I'm able to take my experiences and what happened to me, and convey that information onto the students I've taught," Sergeant Skelton said. "My story has a direct correlation to what we teach." 

The curriculum of Lackland's Safety Academy covers the broad spectrum of issues facing the daily operation of the Air Force and its numerous missions. There's the weapons safety course with its combination of nuclear surety and safety management, and there are the apprentice and craftsman courses, both of which are essential to an Airman's proficiency in the field. 

Altogether, the academy teaches four courses in Air Force safety instruction and guidance. Its classrooms produce all the service's safety managers worldwide, around 80 newly-minted managers per year. 

The instructor's ability to relate to the students is important given the fact that all of them, at some point in time, were involved in separate careers around the Air Force. The safety specialty only accepts cross trainees from other Air Force specialties in its field, giving it a unique and varied quality in the skills and abilities of its Airmen. 

"There really isn't a specific demographic that comes into safety," Sergeant Skelton said. "You can get security forces, finance, personnel maintenance or civil engineers. You name it. We have a wide variety and a diverse group, although a majority will come from maintenance or civil engineering because of the sheer numbers." 

Military members from other services are also welcome to the school's courses. To date, members from Saudi Arabia, Jordan, Kuwait and India have enrolled and graduated from courses at the academy. 

Master Sgt. Sid Guidry, superintendent of the Safety Academy and instructor of the weapons safety course, said there were numerous reasons for the prior-service requirement for all its students. 

"Safety works directly for the wing commander; they're going in and telling commanders what is good or bad with their units," Sergeant Guidry said. "An airman or an airman basic trying to do that just doesn't work. They don't have enough experience. We do occasionally get senior airmen, but it's primarily staff sergeants and above up from active-duty, Guard and Reserve units that get the training." 

Tech. Sgt. David Roller, an apprentice and craftsman course instructor, said some security forces Airmen have a particularly difficult time, especially when it comes to the report writing phase of the curriculum. 

"When we do our inspections or investigations, we are not looking for fault in individuals," Sergeant Roller said. "We are looking for root causes for mishaps. All we're trying to do is prevent mishaps for mishap prevention purposes. It's hard for them to take off that NCO hat sometimes and think like a safety person." 

The academy's apprentice course, its only Air Force specialty code awarding course, attempts to eliminate those viewpoints. The course lasts seven weeks; all Airmen, no matter what their background, must graduate the course in order to perform safety management duties. Eighteen months after students graduate from the apprentice course, they come back for the three-week craftsman course, which gives them the skills necessary to upgrade to seven-level status. 

From that point, safety managers have different classes they can be enrolled in, depending on the capabilities they have at their bases and their backgrounds. 

The importance of the academy's mission, to produce the most capable, versatile safety professionals possible, is reflected in the academy's course offerings and its staff's motivation and instruction. 

Sergeant Guidry has a deep understanding of the role the school's curriculum plays in the development of the safety professional. He wrote the books on it. 

"The course rewrite was one of my main objectives to get done when I first got here," Sergeant Guidry said. "When I first arrived, the stuff we were teaching was word for word out of the book. 

"We've tweaked our course so that we're pretty confident now that we're putting out the best qualified weapons safety guys that have come out of here in quite some time," he said. 

Sergeant Guidry said even though everyone gets safety training throughout their entire career, when Airmen come to the academy they're introduced to it with a new set of eyes. 

"We tell them, 'People have been saying you can't do it this way and you have to do it this way. This is why it happens,'" he said. 

Obtaining the skill sets to handle problems and situations in a range of different circumstances is part of the appeal for many safety managers. 

"The one thing I enjoyed about safety was I knew I could go to work every day and expect something different," Sergeant Skelton said. "It may be the same thing sometimes, but it was different in the way it came together. 

"I didn't know what the next phone call was going to be or the next person who was going to walk through the door. It was exciting, and it could change just like that," he said.