Tuesday, November 8, 2011

Assessing Risk Assessment

Risk assessment seems like the topic d'jour. Perhaps that's just my perception, but between the incident at Lumpy Waters, the record number of whitewater fatalities this year and the instructor training I've been doing, risk assessment and post-game dissection has been a recurrent theme in my world. Part of that is the growing trend in kayaking towards the extreme, part of it is a modern aesthetic of justification through analyses, and part of it is the nature of 'social' media and mass communication (all these damn blogs...). While there is lots of useful discussion, debating, debriefing, dialogue and deliberation, I would like to throw a little reality check into the mix.

First, all the Monday morning quarterbacking is just that - Monday morning. After the fact everything is different. Perceptions, recollections, and facts themselves change and distort over time and the complete reality of a situation is never the same. So we can learn general points, we can point out mistakes, we can say what we would have done, but in the end all we can do is move forward. Don't get tied up to the incident that happened and the people that were involved. That reality will never come again and the only wisdom of value is that which can be applied in the abstract.

Second, everything we learn will be forgotten. I say that as a teacher. All these valuable lessons we learn from analyzing mistakes made and planning for the future will be needed again when the same mistakes are made. It's human nature. We may take a different path to making the mistake and at the time it will look completely different (because each situation is unique); but it will be the same mistake. Some people will learn, some people will change, some mistakes will be avoided and our general knowledge will grow. We can develop systems and strategies and procedures to follow for safety; we can create a rubric to protect everyone. But it will fail, and here's why:

Kayaking is fun. People having fun will not follow a system or instructions or a checklist.  It goes against our nature - we want to be free and we want to have fun without burden of restrictions or control. It's what draws us to this sport. (aside: it's been shown that surgeons following a simple checklist, even those with hundreds of similar operations under their belt, will have better results and make fewer mistakes. But surgeons don't want to follow a checklist.) So mistakes and tragedies will still happen, and here's why:

Kayaking is risky. So go ahead and conduct the postmortems; have an incident review; develop a system of safety. It will help. But in the end it comes down to something much more basic: human nature. Some will evaluate at a subconscious level and make the safe call; some will ignore their intuition and take that risk. Safety is ultimately an individual choice and responsibility. The only advice I can offer that might be truly be of use is to be aware of that simple fact. Be aware in general.

Awareness at its most basic level is what allows us to assess risk and properly manage it. Awareness is what allows us to recognize a situation and connect it to lesson learned from previous experience. Awareness is a conscious effort to separate the actor from the action. Awareness is going outside yourself and gaining perspective in the process. Awareness is a skill, an ability and a habit. Awareness can be learned and developed. Awareness is individual but can be shared. Awareness is what allows for the understanding of risk and the assessment in its undertaking. It's not a system or a chart, it's not a tool or a plan, it's not a template or document. Awareness is sum of who we are: our skills, knowledge, training, experience and thoughts. Let that be your guide and your beacon and you will make the right choice.

But you will make mistakes. And the same ones again. There will be danger and harm. There will be regret and recriminations. But we'll go kayaking and have some fun.

1 comment:

  1. I concur with your thoughts on awareness, Bryant, and especially about the need to develop and expanded awareness. Developing comfort and boat handling skills in various types of waters can help in moving someone suffering from tunnel vision to more fully enjoying their experience and awareness of their surroundings. At that point, it's easier to be able to slowwwww down, patiently observe features and areas, and assess the risks. Participating in group paddling situations, and especially leading groups through various stages of a trip, helps to develop one's own sense of situational awareness of hazards, positions and behaviors of different paddlers, and the spectrum of risks that the group is encountering (as well as possibly posing to their environment). And awareness is very beneficial when things finally start to go sideways.