Risk analysis is subjective. We may not agree on the ratings, but at least we now have a way to quantitatively compare where we are at and have that conversation.
By John Cataldo, Fire and Aviation Officer, Yellowstone National Park
By now all your inboxes have likely been saturated by an influx of “risk management” themed accounts of how COVID-19 is impacting our fire and aviation management world. The struggle is real, and we are only in PL2.
While we all know that this additional high-risk factor must be respected, planned, and accounted for as best we can, not every risk management arrow in our quiver is well-suited to the task. Even the foundational “5-Step Risk Management Process” that we hold dear in the IRPG is not well suited to quantitatively comparing alternatives. It’s a solid process, but in the end we’re still left following our gut to a large extent when evaluating the alternatives.
But there are some good risk analysis options out there. I encourage all of us to dive a little deeper before we throw the safety challenge flag out on the battlefield in the name of COVID-19. Trade-Off Analyses (TOA), Green Amber Red (GAR), and Severity Probability Exposure (SPE) risk analysis tools, to name a few, all point the user to a risk adjective class rating and/or a numerical one. This is important because it lets us compare alternative courses of action and measure the impact of our mitigations to total risk. An SPE should only take moment.
The Risk Associated with Utilizing Additional Vehicles to Respond to Incidents
Take for example, due to COVID-19, the risk associated with utilizing additional vehicles to respond to incidents. That’s coming up a lot lately. We’re trying to maintain social distancing, but at what cost or increased risk? Does simply using four vehicles instead of two to transport eight firefighters to an incident double the risk of an injury accident? Maybe—and maybe not.
Let’s run it through this Severity Probability Exposure model of risk analysis. The ratings are subjective, but so is a majority of risk analysis short of citing an objective accident rate or statistic. The SPE tool is designed to evaluate the risk posed by a single task/single hazard and is not a worst scenario calculator or designed to evaluate the overall risk of an entire operation or project.
In this example, we’ll focus on the risk of injury to firefighters during the task of travelling in a six-pack truck to and from a fire. I picked that task specifically because on our local unit we were weighing the risks of having a module add a six-pack to their assigned fleet for the summer.
The Severity (potential loss or consequences/injury) of a vehicle accident can be rated 1 to 5 (“Insignificant” to “Catastrophic”). Out of 100 vehicle accidents, let’s characterize this event as “Moderate” (3) Severity in our initial rating; an opportunity for mitigations comes later. True, we have the occasional “Catastrophic” accident, but in my experience more often than not we back into trees, dent quarter panels, or get into other “Minor” to “Moderate” Severity misadventures.
The number of vehicles that you drive to a fire does not influence the Severity of an individual vehicle accident. However, some might choose to rate a full vehicle involved in an accident as more severe than a half-full one and go higher with the SPE score here. 3 x ? x ? = ?
The likelihood of an injury mishap occurring while travelling in a vehicle can be rated 1 to 5 (“Rare” to “Frequent”). A vehicle mishap always seems at least “Possible” (3) but is probably a little closer to “Unlikely” (2) on a daily basis. We’ll go with a 3 initially out of respect for firefighter driver fatigue and how often young adults holding steering wheels keeps us all up at night. This factor is going to present an excellent opportunity for mitigations to lessen the risk. 3 x 3 x ? = ?.
This factor is rated 1 to 4 (“Negligible” to “High”). If we are sending eight folks to a fire they are all exposed equally to the vehicle hazard regardless of configuration. The Exposure is unchanged by the number of vehicles used to accomplish the task. In this example, we can’t be only somewhat exposed. The only way to effectively reduce Exposure to a hazard as an organization (fire service) is to: A) engage in hazardous tasks less often; B) or for a shorter period of time; C) or with less personnel.
Therefore, if you aren’t putting more firefighters into vehicles than you need to you’ve essentially done what you can here to reduce vehicle Exposure. Other tasks may lend themselves better to the optional intermediate Exposure ranges, but unfortunately not this one. 3 x 3 x 4 = ?
This Example’s Summary Results
In summary, for my subjective example here, a “Moderate” (3) Severity incident is “Possible” (3) considering the “High” (4) level of Exposure and yields an initial risk rating of 3x3x4=36. This is considered a “Possible” risk as is anything with a score of 20-39. “Slight” total risk is anything under a score of 20 in a SPE analysis, 40-59 is “Substantial”, 60-79 is “High” risk, and >80 is “Very High” risk.
So let’s see what we can do to reduce that “Possible” rating down to “Slight”.
Now the good news. We have a lot of ability to drive the final risk level of a task down in the Severity and Probability ratings even if the Exposure is fixed at “High” in this task. The ways that the Severity of a vehicle accident can be mitigated is by reducing speed, using seatbelts and airbags (PPE), and, to some extent, driver training in that it may reduce driver over-correction error and instances of rollover. If we do all those things right we may realistically reduce the typical accident Severity to “Minor” (2).
The strongest mitigations for accident Probability reside in training and evaluating drivers, driver fitness and fatigue management, preventative vehicle maintenance, speed (again!), using headlights and backers, and environmental conditions. It’s not out of the question that paying close attention to these variables could bring our accident Probability down to “Unlikely” (2). Is it more complicated than that? Damn right. Fatigue kills in this line of work and driving fire apparatus isn’t a skill acquired overnight. These factors must be considered in the Probability rating and need to be adequately accounted for there at whatever scale you are analyzing risk.
Result: A Way to Quantitatively Compare and Have That Conversation
As far as Exposure goes, unless we take less firefighters to the fire we aren’t going to change the Exposure for this task. If eight people get into the trucks, the Exposure is absolute and gets the highest available rating. But with the mitigations to Severity and Probability we still got the typical risk back down into the acceptable range 2x2x4=16.
Plug your own ratings in and see where it shakes out for your module or district. A situation within a module may push the accident Probability higher and raise the risk. Or maybe you are blessed with a great group of drivers and you are able to keep them sufficiently rested. Your call. Like I said, risk analysis is subjective. We may not agree on the ratings, but at least we now have a way to quantitatively compare where we are at and have that conversation.
Take the Time to Really Analyze
This SPE analysis indicates the risk of injury travelling in two vehicles versus four is pretty much sixes. And if you can mitigate the Severity and Probability variables as best you can there is an opportunity for this to be a relatively low risk endeavor. But everyone’s situation is different. So take the time to really analyze it.
I think if we end up needing a way to immediately begin to isolate a firefighter that is starting to exhibit COVID-19 symptoms we’ll be glad to have that extra rig handy. I’m treating the extra vehicle like an escape route to a safety zone. You don’t end up using them every day, but you always need them.
A Deeper More Comprehensive Dive into Risk Analysis
We’ll save the GAR Model and Trade-Off Analysis for a different day. Suffice to say they provide a great opportunity to take a deeper, more comprehensive dive into the risk analysis for an entire operation or project. Some aviation programs even include a GAR in the pre-mission size-up and briefing before complex missions. Trade-Off analysis is a good way to display strategic options to a broader audience.
There’s an app for that! The NPS SPE GAR app is available free of charge for iOS and Android mobile devices and is handy for quickly walking you through either a SPE risk analysis of a single task or a GAR analysis of a project or complex activity. You can even save the analysis, so you have it documented in case you need to refer back to it later. Everyone gets a pocket card with the SPE and GAR on it when we teach Operational Leadership to our National Park Service employees. Whatever’s clever in your neck of the woods.
I suspect that COVID-19 will put many of us in a “best bad option” scenario before this fire season is over. It’s therefore good to have a variety of ways to quantitatively analyze and document our choices.