Once each year, across the Air Force, airmen are pulled away from their real jobs to sit at a computer or in a training course and learn — for the umpteenth time — how to use a fire extinguisher. They have to do it year after year, wasting a half-hour of their time to relearn something they have already been taught over and over again — and that they'll probably never have to use.
"I have over 23 years in; how many times do they have to train me on how to utilize a fire extinguisher?" one commenter wrote in an Air Force Times online forum on computer-based training in 2013.
And it's not just fire extinguishers. Training time quickly adds up. The Air Force estimates that 42 common ancillary training courses — that is, training on subjects outside of an airman's core duties — could take up to 60 hours out of their time if they were to take all of them in a single year.
But now, airmen who have had it with hours of annoying, repetitive training may finally have their wishes granted. In the second round of its effort to cut back on redundant instruction or pointless duties, the Air Force is cutting ancillary and computer-based training programs roughly in half, to a little less than 30 hours each year.
"We're really excited about our continuing effort to give airmen a little bit more time back to do their primary missions, supporting what they were brought in to do in the Air Force," said Gabe Camarillo, the Air Force's assistant secretary for manpower and reserve affairs, in an Oct. 26 interview. "We know the burden of training is a significant factor on the minds of many of the airmen we speak to."
In recent months, Air Force Secretary Deborah Lee James has made it a priority to cut back on such duties — commonly known in the service as "queep" — to free up more time for stretched-thin airmen struggling to keep up. In August, the first round of queep reduction targeted 21 of 61 "additional duties" that were to be reduced, realigned or — in the case of eight duties — eliminated altogether.
The second round, announced by James and Air Force Chief of Staff Gen. David Goldfein Oct. 31, will eliminate 15 stand-alone training courses and streamline or consolidate 16 more. Of those streamlined or consolidated courses, four will be conducted less frequently, nine will be shortened, one will be consolidated with another, and two others will have new test-out options for airmen who already know the material.
"From reducing additional duties to reducing ancillary and computer-based training, we remain committed to a continuous journey to provide more time for airmen to focus on primary duties," James and Goldfein said in an Oct. 27 memo. "It is our hope that this will also translate into more time for airmen to spend with their families who are so central to mission success."
Effective immediately, they said, airmen no longer have to complete the courses that have been completely eliminated.
The affected programs represent training courses that virtually all airmen have to complete, Camarillo said, whether they work in cyber, remotely piloted aircraft or contracting.
Camarillo said the slashed training doesn't mean the Air Force has decided the subjects aren't worthwhile. To the contrary, he said, sexual assault and suicide prevention are crucial topics. But as the Air Force reviewed its training, it found that in some cases, airmen already learn about these topics elsewhere.
In other cases, Camarillo said, airmen may only need training in certain during specific times, such as when they're about to deploy, or need a refresher every two or three years, instead of annually. For other topics, airmen can learn the necessary information in ways besides formal, mandatory training. And some airmen will be able to test out of certain classes they already know backwards and forwards, he said.
Airmen from the 23rd Combat Communications Squadron practice using a water-based fire extinguisher during training provided by the 349th Civil Engineer Squadron at Travis Air Force Base, Calif. The Air Force recently eliminated its annual fire extinguisher training as part of an effort to cut down on redundant training that takes airmen away from their everyday jobs.
Photo Credit: Tech. Sgt. Rachel Martinez/Air Force
The annual mandatory fire extinguisher safety training, for example, will be replaced with a voluntary training opportunity at each installation during National Fire Prevention Month, as well as informational materials provided by each base's fire chief. And Camarillo said the Air Force will make sure fire extinguishers are properly labeled so someone can quickly figure out how to use them when a fire has broken out.
And the Air Force is also cutting an hour-long mentoring session on how supervisors can prevent retaliation and bullying of sexual assault victims — not because the topic isn't important, but because training on that is already included in the service's Green Dot training. And at Air University. And Airman Leadership School. And the Non-Commissioned Officer Academy.
"We found there were some areas where we had a lot of redundancies, and that really helped us to tackle this challenge," Camarillo said. "We found other ways to convey this information that allowed us to reduce some of the burden of the required training."
Self-aid and buddy care is another area that will be significantly streamlined under the Air Force's new plan. Today, in a two-hour computer class every three years, airmen have to learn how to do things like apply a tourniquet or a hemostatic bandage on themselves or a battle buddy to treat a gunshot wound. Airmen deploying to high-threat locations also receive a two-hour hands-on training course. But for an airman whose chances of deploying are slim to none, Air Force leaders decided that requiring the computer-based course every three years doesn't make much sense.
Instead, the Air Force will only require airmen to take the two-hour computer-based course and the two-hour hands-on course when they're stationed at high-threat locations or when they're about to deploy. The same goes for a one-hour computer-based class on counter-improvised explosive device awareness that until now has been required every three years.
The Defense Travel System training was also massively redundant, the Air Force said. Until now, airmen have had to take two computer-based training courses — one an hour long, the other 90 minutes. But Camarillo said those courses presented "essentially the same content, repeated twice." So the two courses will be combined into one hour-long course.
But how did the Air Force get to the point where it has so much duplicative training, hanging on like a vestigial tail?
Camarillo said all the training requirements were created with good intentions. But as new policies and regulations were created and put into practice, they often came packaged with training requirements. As the Air Force evolved, the average airman kept getting hit with one new requirement after another.
"When you aggregate them together at the individual airman level — who is the person who actually has to complete all of these requirements — that's where the burden can be felt the most," Camarillo said. "We took a look at it from the airman's perspective, to say, 'What is the comprehensive burden of time and commitment that airmen have to go through, and time that they're not otherwise spending providing support to their primary duty?' "
But going forward, the Air Force must be careful to ensure queep doesn't creep back in, Camarillo warned.
"Part of this initiative is also making sure that we're institutionalizing new processes and new mechanisms to screen these policies as new ones come up to make sure that they don't [inadvertently] continue to add to that burden on airmen's time," he said.
The Air Force also needs to conduct periodic reassessments to make sure the changes are actually taking effect and helping airmen, Camarillo said. In their memo, James and Goldfein said that oversight process will begin this fall.
Col. Andra Kniep, 23rd Wing vice commander, inserts a nasopharyngeal airway during a self-aid and buddy care class at Moody Air Force Base, Ga. The Air Force recently streamlined its self aid and buddy care training as part of an effort to cut down on redundant mandatory training that takes airmen away from their daily duties.
Photo Credit: Airman 1st Class Ceaira Tinsley/Air Force
Some observers are questioning whether the Air Force’s orders to eliminate queep are actually taking effect at the front lines. On Oct. 25, former airman Steven Mayne posted on his Air Force amn/nco/snco Facebook pageimages of an Oct. 11 memo from a colonel at Offutt Air Force Base with the subject line "Income Tax Assistance Program — Call For Tax Advisors," encouraging organizations there to allow airmen to volunteer for the program.
This raised eyebrows for Mayne and some of his commenters, since "unit tax representative (advisor)" was listed as one of the ancillary duties that would be eliminated in the first round of reductions. Mayne said a wing commander "encouraging" his subordinate commanders to allow people to volunteer is, essentially, an order to find airmen to fill that role.
"If we were [Goldfein] or [James], we'd be on the phone with Offutt Air Force Base's wing commander and also be considering how many other bases went against their direction," Mayne wrote. "If the CSAF and SECAF allow wings to simply change the word 'additional duty' to 'volunteer' and then allow the wing commanders to encourage said volunteering, all was for naught."
In the interview, Camarillo said that while he hadn't seen that memo, the Air Force did not intend for bases to shift those duties to a voluntary status.
"That's not what we contemplated," Camarillo said. "If a duty was eliminated across the force, there was no discussion of creating it as a voluntary activity. What we had contemplated as part of our review of additional duties is that when implemented, that work, if it was truly eliminated, would be eliminated across the Air Force."
In an Oct. 27 email, Air Force spokesman Maj. Bryan Lewis offered further comment.
"As Sec. James and Gen. Goldfein announced this August, the designation for each unit to assign and train a unit tax representative was eliminated across the Air Force following the recommendation by the 'Airmen's Time' task force," Lewis said. "This is no longer a required additional duty. However, an airman may still volunteer as a tax representative, even though it is not an additional or required duty."
In a follow-up email two days later, Lewis further clarified:
"As senior leaders have recently mentioned, this is one step as part of a long journey to give airmen more time back. While we issued guidance a few weeks ago, we continue to work with the field on updating current practices. "Moving forward, continued outreach, annual accountability reviews and revised inspection guidance will help clarify any future implementation."
The Air Force is still in the process of implementing those changes announced in August, Camarillo said. The Air Force will conduct its first accountability review in early 2017 to make sure units and commanders are aware of and complying with these changes, and the Air Force Inspector General Office will make this a part of its regular unit inspections, he said.
The Air Force is now updating all of its regulations and policies to reflect these changes, and will be finished by Jan. 1, Camarillo said. The Advanced Distributed Learning System that contains the computerized-training modules will be updated by April 1 to reflect the new test-out options, reduced time frames and frequencies, and other changes.
But the Air Force isn't done yet, he said. There are other training courses and ancillary duties that are required by Defense Department policy or law, which the Air Force doesn't have the power to cut or streamline. So the Air Force is talking to lawmakers and Pentagon officials to try to get laws and regulations changed to allow them to further cut unnecessary training or duties.
There also could be ways to make computer-based training more user-friendly, Camarillo said, like adding even more test-out options or allowing airmen to save their progress and come back to it later. All those are likely to help make up round three of the effort to save airmen more time.
"We will never relax on this," Camarillo said. "We need to pay continuous attention to it. As the chief and the secretary have said, it's very important that we continue to monitor this very, very closely to make sure that when we meet with airmen, and we see what they're experiencing at units, it reflects the changes that were announced here and that are intended."
Stephen Losey is the air warfare reporter for Defense News. He previously covered leadership and personnel issues at Air Force Times, and the Pentagon, special operations and air warfare at Military.com. He has traveled to the Middle East to cover U.S. Air Force operations.