It’s March 2020, a time when people are well and truly panicked about a virulent respiratory disease. Government institutions across the globe are flailing about for consequence mitigation strategies- with greater or lesser success and some risk of unintended consequences.
People panic because they don’t trust established institutions to handle an emergency. Institutions lose trust because they’re corrupt, incompetent, unresponsive or some combination.
So we must ask the question: What’s a working man to do?
I want to offer a risk assessment and mitigation approach that anyone can apply to daily life. It’s not difficult and, unlike some of Matt’s articles on marksmanship, there’s no math here.
Risk is a combination of event probability and event consequences. To assess risk, we first analyze the conditions that trigger likely probably consequences. Then we determine what actions we can prudently take to reduce that probability or mitigate its effects.
It’s simple but requires some effort over time.
The Philosophy (What and Why)
We like positive outcomes.
Think of an uneventful commute, a pleasant business meeting, or a good meal. On the other end, we don’t like negative outcomes. Think of traffic jams, contentious clients, food poisoning or dysentery. But how do we avoid those adverse outcomes?
Risk assessment and mitigation.
For most things, we don’t do it deliberately because the consequences of bad outcomes aren’t really all that bad. We live, we recover, and we’re forgiven. So we use heuristics (rules of thumb) to inform our decisions along these lines.
For the above examples, we’re familiar with general traffic patterns so we can avoid most delays except the occasional breakdown or road-clogging accident. We know our client preferences and cater to them to set the conditions for success. We know to avoid sketchy restaurants or that trendy food truck that we’ve never seen before.
It’s all “common sense.” Or so we say.
At a deeper level, it’s really transmitted cultural intelligence based on “data.” It’s the shared experience of others transformed into conditional conventional wisdom.
Ok, you say. That’s nice. But what does it mean to me?
What it means is that we’re unconsciously performing risk assessment and mitigation most of the time. It usually works out great because things don’t change drastically from moment to moment.
Sometimes, though, we need to be more deliberate in our approach to risk management because we lack experience in the event or the consequences are so serious that we are really motivated to reduce risk of an adverse outcome.
Every squad leader in the army knows about pencil-whipping risk reports to keep things running smoothly with the higher-ups. Many know the purpose is identifying the things we can control to reduce the risk of bad outcomes for things we want to do. Think of a cool live-fire range or advanced medical training.
But checking the block won’t cut it when our personal blood and treasure on the line. We need to seriously reduce the risk of adverse outcomes by understanding the task and conditions in their proper context. We also need to think about how we can modify the task or conditions to make a positive outcome more likely.
BLUF: This approach applies to everything in your life. No exceptions.
Deliberately applied as philosophy and mindset, it puts you in the driver’s seat of your life. That doesn’t mean that bad things don’t happen- they will. It does mean that undesirable consequences are less likely to be catastrophic.
The bottom line of all this is simply to take prudent measures to ensure that what might be a catastrophe is merely an inconvenience for you and yours.
So, what is risk? How do we assess it? How do we mitigate risk in a cost-effective manner?
The Logic and Construct (the “How it Works”)
Risk is the probability of an event occurring in a given set of conditions. It’s important to accept that all probability is conditional.
The smart math guys and Six-Sigma quality control guys use much more detailed definitions and models, but they all rely on the fundamental relationship of Probability of outcome A, given conditions b, c, d, e…n.
In shorthand P[A|b,c,d, e…n].
The basics is knowing that the conditions (b through n) are what we manipulate to reduce risk.
And that’s about as much math as we’re going to do. Understand the premise: no probability exists in a vacuum- it’s always conditional. The conditions affect likelihood, and some conditions have drastically more influence than others. Pareto’s 80/20 principle, anyone?
So risk is a conditional probability. Let’s break that down a little further.
Risk is a function of the probability of an event and the probability of that event’s consequences. Both the event and the consequences are conditional probabilities. Symbolically, let’s annotate it as:
Risk= F(event consequence).
Enough math symbols. You get the idea that nothing occurs in isolation and that consequences are logically linked to both events and their conditions (antecedents). The probability of an event occurring depends heavily on the conditions.
For example, a traffic jam is more likely during a snowstorm.
The probability of a consequence depends heavily on the conditions of that consequence. The severity of an injury in a traffic accident varies with the use of automobile safety equipment, driver adherence to a safe speed for road condition, and all of the other things they taught you years ago.
So that’s the basic analytic methodology. Understand an event and its antecedent conditions; understand likely consequence and its antecedent conditions. Adjust conditions to reduce both.
That seems overwhelming and a lot of numbers, but there are some useful heuristics to help us along.
Let’s Apply the Approach
First, let’s simplify the math. Actually, let’s generally avoid it altogether. We’ll lump event probability into 3 bins:
An event is unlikely to occur, moderately likely to occur, or very likely to occur. Easy enough, and probably accurate enough for our purposes.
Do the same for event consequence with 3 buckets: low, medium, and high. Low consequence implies we can handle the outcome with available resources and little disruption. Medium implies that we might need more resources and the disruption would be noticeable, as Ricky Ricardo often said in that classic SitCom I love Lucy “Lucy, you got some ‘splainin to do.”
High consequence means what you think it means: Severe disruption and significant outside assistance required to resolve the issue. Dust off that 9-line CASEVAC card and get the Forward Observer working on some direct support because things have just gotten sporting.
One more factor for ease of assessment: event duration. Let’s divide things up in terms of how long the crisis lasts. Because it’s useful to distinguish between things that disrupt for a few minutes and those that disrupt a couple of months. For convenience, let’s say that a short duration is minutes to hours; medium duration is hours to days, and a long duration is weeks to months.
Now we can set about categorizing the things that will have the most dramatic impact on our lives, and put in place prudent measures to avoid adverse outcomes.
Note to Six-Sigma guys: yes, we could also consider consequence durations as a variable. That’s much more contentious as a matter of definition. It’s also not helpful for our purposes.
So, you can think of this as a table for each duration. Actually a 3-dimensional table with axes for duration, likelihood, and consequence; but 3 dimensional objects are hard to reproduce on 2-dimensional paper… so we get something like this:
Repeat this framework for Medium and Long-duration events, if desired.
The point of all this is to understand that Low probability, low consequence events can probably be safely ignored. Take them in stride.
High probability and high consequence events, the ones that appear in the top right of our table, deserve some deliberate analysis and mitigation efforts to change the conditions and reduce either the likelihood or consequences.
That’s worth repeating. The point of risk analysis is to modify the antecedent conditions of either event probability or event consequences to reduce either or both.
We’re neither magicians nor omniscient. The best we can do is avoid the worst hazards and prepare for the consequences that we can’t avoid.
You’re probably anxious to get to some concrete examples. So, let’s do that. We’re going to use a garden variety natural disaster as a training vehicle. There’s no need to delve into the realm of a zombie apocalypse or Rambo. An ordinary spring storm will do fine for our purposes.
Type A Emergency
Spring storm on a Saturday evening interrupts power to your subdivision. The power company usually restores it within a day or so. You have a large stock of frozen food, young children who are easily bored at home, and a pregnant wife that doesn’t care for the stifling air.
Notice that there are conditions that affect your assessment? You’ll greatly benefit by making these important considerations explicit in your analysis.
High probability. Why? Because you live in an area where spring storms occur annually and interrupt power. You know this from experience or collected data.
Can we modify the frequency of storms, one of our probability conditions? No, we can’t. They are beyond our control, so just accept that the probability is medium and that means we will likely face it in any reasonable time horizon. Maybe not tomorrow, but probably in any given spring.
Unmitigated consequences are moderate. Bored children aggravating an already sensitive mom, in the dark, without entertainment, and a muggy house. Add to that a month’s worth of frozen food that might go bad if the power guys don’t get on the job soon.
Can we modify the consequences? Absolutely! We can do a couple of things that will reduce the severity significantly. So, on to mitigation measures.
First, let’s address that freezer. Honestly, most frozen foods are prepared items in a box that’s mostly air. Air isn’t a good thermal mass. Also, most freezers aren’t chock full to the seals. So let’s fix that. Fill up empty containers that fit your free space with water and put them in the freezer. This increases the thermal mass and slows the thawing of the food that you want to keep. Easy and cheap. Just repurpose those empty soda bottles or butter tubs. Risk reduced at low cost and low inconvenience. If that’s not enough for you, then cover the freezer with a blanket or 5 to increase insulation value and reduce heat transfer. Easy.
If, in your estimation, that makes the consequences tolerable (lower), then you’re done. If not, let’s take on some of the other antecedents to consequence.
First, let’s make the wife happy. She doesn’t like stifling air. There’s lots of options for that. She’d probably like a whole house generator so everything functions as normal, with or without the power company. You say that’s not in the budget. So, maybe a battery-powered fan or two to keep the air moving. She thinks that’s a great idea, and you get to go to the big box hardware store to buy one of those job site battery fans. Awesome.
But, she says, it’s not good enough. The kids are driving her nuts!
A battery-powered DVD player? How about a backup 12V deep cycle battery and an inverter to power the regular TV and DVD player? Add in a solar panel along with a couple of extra batteries and you could power the refrigerator too. No spoiled milk will make everyone happy. Now we’re getting somewhere. This is looking like a plan we can work over time…
Modified Risk assessment
Implementing the agreed consequence mitigation measures reduces the consequence to low, and we can live with that.
Emergency becomes inconvenience as a result of a little analysis, some prudent resourcing, a little money spent, and a little diligent effort.
So, we now have an example. We could make the duration longer by considering that the road may have been blocked by fallen trees. That means mitigation requires larger and longer-term knowledge, skill, and tools. We might consider a long-term consequence of damaged power sub-station or bridge damage that really extends the emergency.
Those conditions might warrant different and more significant mitigation measures.
Make a feasible plan. Phase it over time to fit your budget and risk tolerance. Above all, don’t panic. We’re dealing with probabilities here, not certainties. The goal isn’t 100% convenience. The goal is to take prudent action to prevent an emergency from becoming a catastrophe; to make an emergency into a mere inconvenience.
Military types will recognize this as the place in the order where we restate the things common to all: Standing Operating Procedures, Uniform and Equipment common to all, weapons control status, etc. etc. That’s not precisely what this is, but it’s close.
There are common hazards and mitigations that we should all take to avoid adverse consequences. I’ll list a few as food for thought, but your list will vary because your antecedent conditions are different than mine.
Take care of your health daily. No kidding. Fitness contributes to health and well-being. Strong body and mind are linked. You don’t have to become Arnold and live in the gym. Just be active every day. Take a walk, ride a bike, play with your kids.
Yes, that old college football injury still nags. HTFU, buttercup, keep moving. You’ll be more disease resistant and have more energy. Like lifting heavy stuff? By all means, do so. And encourage friends and family to do the same. No one can be too strong of body or mind. Don’t smoke or drink too much; it makes you lazy.
Have a working fire extinguisher in places where you might need one. The kitchen and bedroom are a good start. One in the car, maybe? Smoke detectors are good. Don’t store gasoline in the basement. Don’t smoke in bed.
Have good homeowners’ insurance.
Use your seat belts and airbags. Practice defensive driving. Maybe take a refresher course in defensive driving to lower your insurance rates? Have good automobile insurance. Put your kids in car seats. Don’t drive impaired by fatigue, distraction, or anything else.
The proximate cause doesn’t really matter here. It could be illness, job loss, stock market collapse, flugaloo….
The mitigations are all of the same class: spend less than you earn, save a little every paycheck. Have an emergency fund of some sort. Call it a month’s expenses in the bank as a start. Expand it every year until you have 6 months of expenses saved and accessible.
Don’t forget to address the spending side of that equation: spend less and your savings target is easier to achieve. Spend a little on appropriate insurance coverages: Health insurance – at least major medical coverage for catastrophic care.
Life insurance – if you have dependents, you need life insurance; it’s the gift of recovery and adjustment time to them. Auto insurance– most states force you to have some. If nothing else, make a realistic budget and stick to it. Set your priorities and enforce them.
This happens more than we think. Infrastructure is more than roads and electricity. It’s the bones and sinew of our economy: medical care, transportation, food production and distribution, and more. It’s all about flows from producer to consumer, and where the system might get clogged up causing disruption.
Our storm example is a small disruption. Supply shocks like the 1973 Arab Oil embargo hit hard. So do demand shocks, like the 2008 housing bubble. They disrupt normal economic flows and cause shortages.
Plan ahead. Keep some food in the house. That helps with job loss too. Have some first aid knowledge to deal with an accident, illness, and injury. You don’t want or need to run to the doctor for every scrape or sniffle. Learn what you can handle with self or buddy aid, and when you really need to seek advanced treatment care.
This is, of course, a favorite in the preparedness community. Everyone likes guns and ammo. It’s also one of the most easily mitigated.
If you live in a violent neighborhood, then move. If you live with a violent person, move out. Can’t move? Then add security measures like good locks, security systems, etc…
Carry a gun if you like, but get trained on the employment techniques and legal antecedents to lethal force application before you strap it on. Learn and practice empty-handed fighting skills if that’s your thing.
Mostly, just avoid doing stupid things, with stupid people, in stupid places, at stupid times. (Yes, many people claim to have originated that advice. It’s a cultural heuristic for good reason. Ignore it at your peril.)
We have zero control over probability, despite what the Al Gore global warming brigade might profess. We can mitigate consequences.
Tornados, hurricanes, and severe thunderstorms are real threats to most of the country. Have a strong shelter in your home. Keep some basic repair supplies on hand in case a tree limb blows through a window or something like that.
Have a small stock of food and water in your home in case roads are closed for a few days. Have an evac plan in case the damage makes your home uninhabitable. If you live in a flood prone area, have a plan to evac and a plan to stay.
Keep your important documents accessible to take with you: insurance policies, birth certificates, marriage certificates, passports, bank records, family bible…your life, you make the list based on your priorities.
This is important. Slightly different than physical fitness, but linked.
Be deliberate about TV. Don’t have it on for noise, company, or indoctrination. Watch what you like for entertainment, but do so in moderation.
Same for the internet. Be deliberate; don’t waste time on fruitless endeavors. Search for information that interests you and put it to work making your life better.
Read books. Especially old books. Start with your local library; buy the classics and introduce your kids to the ideas in those books.
Practice a hobby or two. Preferably creating something: writing, crafts (however you define that), cooking, gardening…something that provides learning, feedback, and benefit to your life.
Maintain your gear
This should go without saying, but it’s often forgotten. Do preventive maintenance checks and services on your car, house, and other gear.
Are your tires serviceable and properly inflated? Oil & lubricants serviceable and proper levels? Coolant still good? Hoses and belts cracked yet?
Stay ahead of the curve so your gear doesn’t create a crisis for you. Work through your list of essential support gear and schedule required maintenance.
Economic collapse, global thermonuclear war, plague, asteroid strike, alien invasion, Civil War XVIII, Armageddon…. These are the stuff of doomster fantasy. Probabilities are beyond low and mitigating the consequences are beyond the resources of most families or communities. Don’t dwell on these until you’ve taken care of the basics: Shelter, food, water, medical care, fuel, financial viability.
If you got this far, you’re probably thinking that’s a long way around the barn and I didn’t tell you how to survive the economic collapse that attended the 2029 Irish Flu Famine, the 2032 Civil War in Burundi, or the North Korean invasion of San Diego.
Nope. I didn’t. Because I can’t.
Your life is different from mine. You have to do the hard work to set goals, make a plan and assess risk. All risk is conditional. You have significant control over many of those conditions. Make good choices. Make them deliberately and thoughtfully with a coherent internal logic.
Have a plan for your life. Your whole life. Emergency planning is just one part of that plan. As you plan, understand the conditions you’re counting on (the antecedents); make those assumed conditions explicit and monitor them (CCIR). When conditions change, adjust you plan to reduce risk and set amended achievable goals. Don’t panic, take prudent action toward your objectives with the resources available
Useful way of looking at things, and a nice cheap reminder of what you can do to make your chest freezer a more durable ice box in the event of a power outage. Thanks for writing the essay, man!
Thanks for reading, Steffen! Jon had a lot of good advice regarding chest freezers in the community that I took notes on. It’s something missing in our household but plan to fix soon.