PARIS AIR SHOW: Conair - canary in the safety management system coal mine

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Self-preservation has turned out to be a positive trait for Canadian firefighting specialist Conair. The company has become a model for how to implement the safety enhancing safety management system in the Canadian transport industry.

Already required for the airline industry in Canada, the safety management system is to be implemented in the aerial firefighting community later this year, prompting companies to put in place non-punitive reporting systems, feedback mechanisms and training to cut the potential for accidents.

Conair led the pack, implementing its own safety management system 12 years ago after taking a critical look at its operations. "We were tired of having accidents," says Ray Horton, director of flight operations for the Abbotsford, British Columbia-based company.

Its 190 employees, 80 pilots and 60 mechanics operate 58 aircraft, making it the largest private fire-protection company in the world, says Horton.

Its fleet includes Convair CV580s, converted to tankers by Conair subsidiary Cascade Aerospace, Douglas DC-6s, Air Tractor AT-802Fs, Cessna Caravans, Piper Aerostars, Rockwell Turbo Commanders and Bombardier 215s.

After that internal evaluation, Horton says Conair "reinvented" itself using four core principles: hiring the best, making expectations clear, going through a training process and providing operational control and support. Woven through the four core principles is the safety management system, which largely relies on a non-punitive "just culture" reporting process.

"You will always find that if people are involved, you will have errors," says Horton. "What we can do is stop the chain of events. It starts with the reporting."

Ottawa took notice of the company's proficiency. Horton says regulators tried out their safety management system audit process on Conair before rolling out the programme nationwide. "Transport Canada singled out Conair as an example of safety culture and safety organisation," he says.

That the regulator now refers companies to Conair for advice when setting up their programmes is icing on the cake. "Our motivation on safety was selfish - we didn't want accidents," says Horton.