On this evening’s webinar event, “Recent avalanche accidents, Are the victims unlucky? Or were the accidents predictable?“
My heart is heavy with all the avalanche accidents and deaths over the last few days in the Northern French Alps and in parts of Switzerland not too far away. I’m thinking of the victims, their families and friends, and also of my own friends and colleagues who have met with similar fates in the past. I’m also painfully aware of close calls that I’ve had myself and been very lucky to get away with.
With all this in mind, below are some personal thoughts I’d like to share about accident prevention. I refer you to a very close call that I had 25 years ago – it still haunts me. I’d like to thank my colleagues, Chris and Rob, for organising this evening’s upcoming webinar event, for committing to facilitate the discussion and for helping me stick with our mission of helping people to reduce the risk of accidents.
In a recent article, We trust our intuitions even when they are wrong, I asked people to try and think about a time when they trusted their intuition, even when it was wrong. Here is my personal contribution to that request… It’s very rare that avalanche terrain provides us with the feedback on our mistakes – and when it does, it can easily kill us. In the mid 1990’s, I was very lucky not to have been killed by a ‘near miss’ and was thus given the opportunity to learn from my mistakes.
I triggered this avalanche that almost killed me, despite being an ‘avalanche expert’ and being aware of a number of clues indicating that there was danger. These obvious clues are points that I present in the HAT ‘Safety is Freedom’ accident reduction framework as a ‘memory aid’ to help others (and myself) avoid accidents by applying these essential risk reduction points. These points were things I did not apply that day, despite ‘knowing better’: Steep slope of well over 30°; high danger rating of 4 (warnings of a weak layer in the bulletin); recent avalanche activity; a terrain trap below…
We all make around 30 errors a day. According to experts, the biggest error would be to think that we do not make errors. The first step in avoiding accidents in these ‘high consequence, low validity’ risk contexts is to recognise human error as a normal part of all of our lives, like eating and sleeping. Accident reduction can only work if we work with our errors, work with our mistakes.
Of course we ‘should have known better’! We just weren’t applying what we know at the time.
The idea of a ‘memory aid’ (as mentioned above); knowledge of human factors’ errors; and teamwork (e.g. the concept of a co-pilot) all help us to apply what we know… at the times when it’s important.
Safety is Freedom!
There’s a long list of evidence that shows how applying simple frameworks, checklists and memory aids reduce risk in ‘high consequence, low feedback’ risk contexts prevalent in: aviation, military, finance, health care, avalanche terrain etc.
See our HAT quick reference ‘Safety is Freedom Framework’ for accident reduction in avalanche terrain. The Framework is aimed at all levels of off-piste and touring: for beginners: a point of departure; for experts: a guide for further learning; for pros: it’s a great framework for client training and quick memory aid.
The Framework is best if accompanied by training such as HAT events and on-snow courses, but it’s also a useful companion for all training as it focuses on the basic key points that all avalanche training courses address – it helps you to keep focused on the essential accident reduction points.