Don’t Let Your Language Fool You: Risk “Transfer” is Not Risk “Mitigation”

Last week we featured writing from the Asheville Hotshots. This week we highlight several unconventional lessons generated by other folks in the Southern Area. The writing in this weeks series was originally submitted through Rapid Lesson Sharing.  In coordination with the submitters, several of these submissions have been adapted for this Blog.

Nice work Southern Area – way to set the bar on sharing lessons and perspectives!

If we can change our language we can change how we think about things—and therefore interrupt old ways of thinking that may undercut safety.


By: 2016 Safety Liaison and Learning Teams, U.S. Forest Service Southern Region (Note: As part of the historic 2016 fall fire season in the Southeastern United States, the U.S. Forest Service deployed teams throughout the Region to capture learning opportunities.)

 Thinking and Speaking are Intertwined

It is one thing to say that our thoughts affect our speech, but it is quite another to recognize how our speaking shapes our thinking.

For example, the “Forest Service 2016 Wildland Fire Risk Management Protocol” suggests that we should consider replacing the commonly used phrase “initial attack” with “initial response” which implies a more “deliberate, thoughtful approach.” (Click here for the 2016 protocol document.)

The logic behind this suggestion is that if we can change our language we can change how we think about things—and therefore interrupt old ways of thinking that may undercut safety.

Thinking, Speaking, and Risk Assessment

One specific example of how language can train our thinking in unintended ways is when we use the word “mitigation”—when what we have really done is “transferred” risk. Even though “mitigation” means that we lessen the severity or likelihood of a potential outcome, we often function as if we have zeroed-out the risk completely.

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A Familiar Topic, a New Example

In December 2016, the Maple Springs Fire was burning from a developed area outside of Robbinsville, North Carolina into the Joyce Kilmer-Slickrock Wilderness. Control lines outside the wilderness boundary were secured.

The Agency Administration and Incident Management Team began discussions about how to proceed with the portion of the fire located within the wilderness boundary. They wanted the fire progression stopped. Two possibilities were discussed.

The first was to put three crews in the wilderness using direct handline to secure the active fire edge. The second was to use water scoopers over a period of a couple of days to continually drop water on the edge and slow the fire’s progression.

The decision was made to limit the risk to the greatest amount of people (the fire crews) by using the aircraft to limit fire spread. However, the IMT expressed concern that this would not “mitigate” risk but rather “transfer” it from the crews to the aerial resources.

To be sure, while this decision mitigated the risk to the greatest number of individuals on the ground, it transferred risk to pilots in the air—where the magnitude of loss could be catastrophic if something were to go terribly wrong.

While both severity and likelihood were taken into account in this decision making process, the exact criteria by which the decision was made is not as easy to discern.

In the comments, share your own examples of when risk isn’t actually mitigated but really just transferred.


One thought on “Don’t Let Your Language Fool You: Risk “Transfer” is Not Risk “Mitigation”

  1. I was the FFMO there at the time, and this is not how it happened AT ALL. Quite the opposite. The forest did NOT want to stop the progression of the fire. We were okay with it continuing to burn into the wilderness. We asked the IMT to stop dropping water with the CL 415s on that part of the “line” because we felt the costs and risks were unnecessary. This report is rather dismaying to me. Not sure where the “information” came from. We also didn’t want to put any ground crews in there at all. Risks were to great for the values and we felt there was low probability of success.

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