Colour is a hallmark of Autumn across the US. A more spectacular set of colours, in a variety of shapes and sizes, paint the sky at daybreak every October in New Mexico. The Albuquerque International Balloon Fiesta is the largest gathering of its kind. In 2019, its 48th year, the fiesta hosted 550 hot air balloons, 650 pilots and entertained close to 900,000 visitors. The event holds a place on the bucket lists of travellers around the world. It is hard to describe the feeling of glee standing amid a mass ascension until you’ve been there amongst the early morning crowds.
You might think it’s all fun, funnel cakes and floating but—like any aviation activity—ballooning entails risk. Make no mistake, the balloonists and their
teams, the organisers, law enforcement, and even participants play a role in the safety of the event. Before sunrise each day, the “dawn patrol” of 8–10 hot air balloonists lift off. These experienced pilots gage the safety of the sky prior to the authorities giving the signal for the assent to begin. Only after that, does the wave after wave of multiple balloons unpack, gear up, inflate and take off from the field. Crews mull about, patiently navigating their designated space amongst onlookers and their cameras to get ready for flight. They implement standard procedures to safely gear-up for flight. Healthcare, too, prepares teams for complex situations to ensure safety through standardisation and practice. The US healthcare accreditation agency, the Joint Commission, shared insights on reducing maternal harm due to postpartum haemorrhaging that summarises best practices centered on readiness, recognition, response and reporting to support systems learning. Stanford Medicine in California recently held a series of “dress rehearsals” prior to opening a new hospital. The test of the space gave clinicians, administrators and patient advisors a chance to make sure conditions were right for a safe opening day.
The fiesta organisers also deploy tactics to learn from what doesn’t go well. They use technology to gather input from crews and the public to identify areas for improvement. Traffic into the 360-acre launch site creates ineffective and potentially dangerous situations given the swell of people arriving in town. Attendees almost double the size of the city for the 10-day event. Public input gathered online helped planners to redesign this year’s park and ride shuttle system after it failed in 2018 to reliably get people to the festival. Hospitals also use information technology to learn how to improve the safety of the care experience. Researchers in Washington State developed a 4-step model built on inpatient experiences with undesirable events. They used patient and family knowledge to design informatics solutions that engage patients as contributors to safety. The model supports raising awareness of problems, encouraging prevention actions, managing emotional harms and reducing barriers to reporting
.A rare situation stalled the festival this year: fog. Yes, fog is not something New Mexican’s encounter often but it shut down opening day morning—none of the balloonists could take off. This unique occurrence would have been all the more problematic had teams not heeded safety advice in this less-than-ideal situation. Practices and protocols keep patients safe too but only if they are followed. A unique set of circumstances led to the death of a patient awaiting care in a Pennsylvania emergency department. Protocols weren’t followed limiting situation awareness, communication and process completion. Balls were dropped and the results were tragic.
Complex systems can manifest unintended consequences from strategies designed to protect people. Balloon fiesta has its share of mishaps. Pilots end up in the Rio Grande, drift into powerlines, bones get broken and, rarely, lives are lost. The expert crews mean well but failures happen. A nurse in Tennessee who made a medication mistake that resulted in patient death was charged criminally. While lawmakers may feel this is a just approach, it is a threat to healthcare transparency. A series of incidents involving misdiagnosis of child abuse is raising concerns in the US. While specialised paediatricians can readily identify patient conditions that indicate abuse, sometimes those judgements are made in error. The decisions made to protect children instead accuse innocent parents or family members of harm. The safe flight of those families then tumbles to the ground.
The pace is back to normal in Albuquerque. Balloons still float above us in the morning and afternoon—'tis the season. They brighten the clear blue skies with the Sandia mountains as a backdrop. But you can bet that what did go wrong this year will be folded into the event planning so all that participate in the 2020 festival will be as safe as possible.