By Donna Miles
American Forces Press Service
July 28, 2008 - Emphasizing that the mine-resistant, ambush-protected vehicles known as MRAPs are the best protection available against roadside bombs and other underbelly explosions, defense safety officials are promoting enhanced training and troop awareness to reduce rollovers and other accidents. Meanwhile, engineers are back at the drawing board, exploring design modifications to make the vehicles more maneuverable and as safe as possible to operate, Jennifer Malone, the Defense Department's lead safety officer for MRAPs, told American Forces Press Service.
Malone conceded that the MRAPs' high center of gravity, designed to keep the crew compartment high off the ground, can cause the vehicles to tip if proper precautions aren't taken. Compounding the issue are environmental limitations in the combat theater – soft sand and roads and bridges not built to handle the hefty MRAPs. Particularly during the spring rainy season, soft shoulders can give way under the MRAP's weight.
Low-hanging power lines strung in Iraqi towns also have been identified as problems, catching the tops of MRAPs as they pass below and shocking or injuring crewmembers.
With almost 10,000 MRAPs currently in the theater, and about 215 more arriving every week, the accident rate stands at 78, Malone reported. Five resulted in fatalities.
Forty-three of all MRAP accidents have involved rollovers. After hitting a high of 10 in April, the number dropped to six in May and three in June.
Bringing these numbers down even more is a top Defense Department priority, Malone said.
"We do not separate safety from survivability in this program," she said. "They are inextricably bonded. You cannot separate the two."
Defense Secretary Robert M. Gates, who championed efforts to field MRAPs as quickly as possible to save warfighter lives, received an update recently during a Defense Safety Oversight Council meeting about efforts to beef up ongoing safety initiatives.
"We briefed him about the where we are, and that knowing what we know about the number of rollovers, we realize that our work is not done and we have more work to do," Malone said.
Design engineers understood from the start that the MRAPs' design made it prone to rollovers if proper precautions weren't taken, Malone acknowledged. But desperate to protect troops from IEDs and recognizing the life-saving benefit of the MRAP's design against underbelly blasts, defense officials moved the program forward. "This was to meet an immediate need to protect the warfighter," Malone said.
Meanwhile, designers worked with safety and training experts to come up with ways to offset design limitations Malone said come with operating any vehicle as big as an MRAP.
Together, they prescribed specific tactics, techniques and procedures for operating the vehicles, and incorporated them into hands-on training required for all drivers before they get behind the wheel of an MRAP.
The training emphasizes special considerations when driving a vehicle with a high center of gravity and an understanding of conditions such as soft shoulders, corners and canals most likely to result in a rollover, explained Marine 1st Lt. Geraldine Carey, spokeswoman for the Marine Corps Systems Command, which manages the MRAP program for the Defense Department.
"These are big vehicles, and you have got to follow all the operational procedures and restrictions you are given to operate them safely," Malone said. "You have to be aware of speed restrictions, terrain restrictions [and] maneuverability restrictions. And that's what the training programs emphasize."
Meanwhile, accident investigation results and lessons learned are being incorporated into training to ensure troops have the most up-to-date information and can learn from each others' experiences, Carey said. The results are posted on safety center Web sites and handed down through the chain of command to users.
Results are incorporated into the additional hands-on training operators and crewmembers receive, not only at their deployed locations, but also before they deploy and as they process into the theater.
User cards summing up this information have been printed and are being distributed to the field. The cards offer a checklist that outlines procedures to prevent rollovers and, should one occur, how to exit the vehicle quickly, Carey said.
Safety officials call ground commanders and noncommissioned officers key to ensuring these lessons are applied. Pre-mission briefs include not just threat information, but also a review of safety considerations and conditions most likely to result in an accident, she said.
As the military promotes more training and awareness of potential hazards, engineers are taking lessons learned and input from users to identify design modifications that will make MRAPs more maneuverable and reduce rollovers, Malone said.
Malone said it's impossible to tell exactly how many lives MRAPs have saved on the battlefield, but said the Defense Department is committed to ensuring no warfighter dies operating one in a preventable accident.
"One accident or one rollover is one too many," she said. "We are doing everything possible to prevent those incidents from happening."