Becoming Sensors: How Will You Respond?

PETERSON AIR FORCE BASE, Colo. -- Sensors are prevalent in modern day technology. Many Air Force systems are equipped with sensors that detect or measure a certain property in another object. Those sensors then record and respond to the object based on the input received.

Imagine arriving at work on a typical day. The "good mornings" flow as usual except for one; it's not the usual cheery good morning you're accustomed to receiving. It's a casual, downcast "hey sir/ma'am" from Airman Smith. At this point, your sensors should detect an anomaly, process the information received, and respond appropriately. What is your response? Do you continue on your journey without a second thought? Do you pause to make an assumption that dismisses the input from Airman Smith? Or do you stop to address the uncharacteristic input and respond with an appropriate "are you okay?"

Since 2008, a popular primetime television show has tried to capture what people would do in a given scenario. Actors are used to act out scenes in a public setting depicting an activity to see if and how bystanders will intervene. The Air Force has also increased focus on bystander intervention when it comes to suicide prevention and sexual assault prevention and response. Both examples highlight the importance of becoming sensors as it relates to people in our immediate environment. 

For many reading this, the immediate reaction is that this already occurs throughout the Air Force. Our senior leadership has made the point clear and we're placing our emphasis in the right areas. I agree. However, as the television show highlights, the response can be different when the individual is not someone we're familiar with. How well are your sensors tuned-in when the individual looking distraught in the corner of the restaurant isn't someone you know, someone in your service or from your unit? 

"Are you okay?" is an appropriate response and can make a world of difference to anyone facing dire straits.

During a recent suicide prevention session, I shared a story about an Airman who felt he'd hit rock bottom and wanted to simply end it all. He lived alone, and although he had several acquaintances and people in his life, he felt like no one cared. He'd been there for others when they needed him, but felt no one was there for him at his time of deepest need. On what he planned to be his last dinner out alone, he was approached by a gentleman who sensed his distress and asked if he was okay. The question and ensuing conversation prevented a tragedy that night. Years later the Airman had an opportunity to thank the individual for showing him hope when all he saw was hopelessness.

Stories like this abound throughout our Air Force. They remind us that showing care is not a comfortable sport. It takes courage, and squelching our own fears and vulnerabilities, when we reach out to someone else we sense may be having an off day. Showing care makes the object of our care the most important person in the world at that moment. In that instance, it can mean the difference between life and death. 

Those of us equipped with smart phones and plugged into social networks have the luxury of an "IGNORE" button when an input is undesirable. When lives are at stake, when human contact is needed, ignoring or being too busy to show concern shouldn't be an option. Becoming a sensor doesn't require a degree in counseling or your own television show. It simply requires empathy and the courage to make the first move when we sense distress in another person. 

Theodore Roosevelt once said "Nobody cares how much you know until they know how much you care." Become a sensor, show you care. Lend an empathetic ear. Those three words, "are you okay?" can be the difference in an Airman's life.