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6 May: Real-time Risk Management

The sad news of the death of 37 year old DaRita Sherpa at Camp 3 drives home the point that mountaineering involves significant risks. In fact, some of you may be asking the question, isn’t climbing Everest too risky? Climbing at this altitude involves risks, to be sure. So does flying an aircraft, riding a motorcycle, unloading cargo or building a new deck for your house. The question is, have you and your friends/coworkers done everything you can to mitigate those risks? If you don’t pay attention to risk, you’re as likely to lose a finger moving a piece of furniture at work as you are to lose one to frostbite on Everest.

If you’ve been following this blog for awhile, you’ve heard us talk frequently about Risk Management, and that’s intentional. One of the purposes of the team’s Everest climb, in addition to our long standing goals of promoting a positive image of the Air Force, enhancing morale, and honoring our fallen comrades, has been to provide a highly visible example of Risk Management. The USAF recently revised its RM guidance, changing the term “ORM” to simply “RM”, to emphasize the point that the skills we learn in our day jobs in the AF can (and should) be applied to off-duty activity as well. We hope those of you following this climb will glean some useful information about how to use RM in your own recreational activites.

RM is divided into two phases: Deliberate, which you can think of as “long-range” RM, and real-time RM. Those of you in uniform have been trained in the 6-step ORM process (which has been simplified to 5 steps), and you may be thinking “get real…you guys aren’t doing a 5-step process up at 26,000 feet!”. And you’d be right to think that. Most of the deliberate RM for this climb was accomplished months in advance by experienced guides who have been on Everest many times. As clients in a commercial expedition, we accept the controls established by those expert guides, just as those of us in uniform accept RM controls that are built into policy guidance, AFIs and tech orders. But what we are doing…every day…is applying the principles of real-time RM.

The framework for real-time RM follows a very simple ”ABCD” moniker. A: Assess the situation, B: Balance controls, C: Communicate, and D: Decide and Debrief the RM decision. Recognizing risk (the assessment phase) means paying attention to the hair on the back of your neck, or the little voice in the back of your head, that tells you to pause for a moment and consider what you’re about to do. It could be jacking up a car to change a flat, or clipping into a slightly frayed rope on a steep icy slope. You pause for minute to ask yourself, “What could go wrong here? Is there anything I can do to mitigate that risk?”

Answering that second question takes you to step 2, balancing controls. What resources are available? Do I need a spotter, or in climbing terms, a belay? If there is another person involved or nearby, a second opinion (communicate!) is invaluable. They may see a hazard or an option that you’ve overlooked. Finally, you make a decision and execute. But don’t forget the “debrief’ part: after the fact (perhaps when you’ve not hanging from a rope in a howling wind), talk it over and ask yourselves, did we make the right call? Would we do it differently the next time? RM is an iterative process, and the more you do it, the better your decision making.

If you are an Airman, and especially if you are a supervisor or a commander, please share this post with the people who work for you. The more people who learn the lessons of “Off-duty RM on Everest”, the more good we can do for our Air Force.

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