Homeland Security Watch

News and analysis of critical issues in homeland security

August 16, 2012

Near-misses, mitigation, and resilience

Filed under: Catastrophes,Infrastructure Protection,Preparedness and Response,Risk Assessment — by Philip J. Palin on August 16, 2012

A giant tulip poplar fell in our yard.   It’s girth was nearly twice my reach.  A storm uprooted and deposited it precisely parallel to our house about eight feet from the west wall.  If it had fallen east at almost any other angle it would have caused significant damage.

This happened two years ago. There are several smaller trees as close to our house.  There is one even larger oak towering over the northwest corner. I have done nothing to mitigate the risk.

There is a program at Wharton that specializes in near-misses.  In 2008  the Wharton researchers added two new layers to the bottom of a pre-existing Safety Pyramid and renamed it the “Risk Pyramid.”  The two new layers are:

  1. Foreshadowing Events and Observations.
  2. Positive Illusions, Unsafe Conditions and Unobserved Problems – Unawareness, Ignorance, Complacency

(From  Assessment of Catastrophic Risk  and Potential Losses in Industry (2012) Kleindorfer, Oktum, Pariyani, and  Seider)

I am not unaware or ignorant of the risk.  I have observed the risk.  I don’t hold positive illusions regarding the risk.   I have observed near-misses and I recognize them as foreshadowing events.  But I am complacent.

Why am I complacent?

According to Alan Berger et al there are  “Five Neglects” common in risk management:

1. Probability neglect – people sometimes don’t consider the probability of the occurrence of an outcome, but focus on the consequences only.

2. Consequence neglect – just like probability neglect, sometimes individuals neglect the magnitude of outcomes.

3. Statistical neglect – instead of subjectively assessing small probabilities and continuously updating them, people choose to use rules-of-thumb (if any heuristics), which can introduce systematic biases in their decisions.

4. Solution neglect – choosing an optimal solution is not possible when one fails to consider all of the solutions.

5. External risk neglect – in making decisions, individuals or groups often consider the cost/benefits of decisions only for themselves, without including externalities, sometimes leading to significant negative outcomes for others.

Some of these factors influence my complacency — especially consequence neglect — but my inaction is mostly a matter of avoiding near-term costs.   It will certainly cost me money, time, and several beautiful trees (all current sources of enjoyment) in order to mitigate the uncertain, if very likely, future loss of (more) money, time and one or more fallen trees.

To overcome these neglects and short-term thinking, scholars at the Wharton School of Business have identified an eight step process:

Step 1 Identification and recognition of a near-miss

Step 2 Disclosure (reporting) of the identifiedinformation/incident

Step 3 Prioritization and classification of information for future actions

Step 4 Distribution of the information to proper channels

Step 5 Analyzing causes of the problem

Step 6 Identifying solutions (remedial actions)

Step 7 Dissemination of actions to the implementers and general information to a broader group for their knowledge

Step 8 Resolution of all open actions and review of system checks and balances

I have done everything except Steps 3, 7 and  8.  In other words, I have done everything except make an explicit decision regarding priority and implementation.  I am kicking the can.  I am procrastinating.  I am not actively choosing, I am passively choosing to accept the consequences of inaction.

This is not just a personal problem.  This is at the core of many organizational, even national problems; even in the best organizations, even in the best nations.

Embedded in the links above are entirely reasonable recommendations regarding management processes to overcome this recurring problem.   Mostly it comes down to variations on creative nagging.  We use data to nag, processes to nag, required reporting to nag. We schedule meetings mostly as an elaborate way to nag. Laws and regulations nag… and throw in some threats for good measure.  By writing this blog I’m nagging myself to take action.

As a colleague says, “Humans typically talk and talk and talk, and if they keep talking about something long enough they will actually do something about it.”

Resilience is enhanced by taking personal responsibility for recognizing and mitigating risks.   Resilience is reduced by inattention, denial, lack of communication, and inaction.   Ignoring near-misses increases the likelihood — and often the scope — of future loss.

What about other near-misses:  floods, wildfires, earthquakes, power outages, communications failures, supply chain complications, and more?  When are these stress events one-offs and when are they pieces of a pattern?   When does an infrequent risk deserve sustained attention and action?

How about this:  When a key asset (such as your home) is catastrophically vulnerable to a demonstrably recurring event (such as high winds)  and this vulnerability is amplified by a specific threat (such as a giant tree), action should be taken to reduce potential consequences (take down the tree).

Excuse me, I’ve got some calls to make.  How about you?

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Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 16, 2012 @ 5:45 am

A comment by Andrew Zolli, author of Resilience: Why Things Bounce Back:

Resilience thinking exists along a spectrum. At one end of the spectrum are people who think about the resilience of systems. Economies, ecosystems, broad technological networks like the internet, industrial sectors. In that world there are a set of patterns of resilience, sort of a pattern language of resilience that’s emerging about the systems. People studying the systems are studying them through the lens of complex adaptive systems. At the other end of the spectrum are people who are thinking about the resilience of individuals, groups, teams, organizations and social networks. At that end of the spectrum, you have social scientists, neuroscientists, organizational theorists. What makes you resilient? What makes me resilient? We’re at a point in the field where often the systems people and the social people don’t talk to each other as often as they ought to. But one thing we see is there are patterns that repeat. There are themes and patterns and principles that we see reflected over and over again. We see a pattern language of resilience.

Seems to me that human choice is a topic for shared consideration by systems people and social people.

For more see an interview with Zolli in Wired.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 16, 2012 @ 7:43 am

Great post! Some do profit from resilience and some do not!

Wonder if you have broad form property insurance (HO-5) that might well cover a tree falling on your residence? If so you have chosen to spread the risk of the event and your annual premiums and deductibles represent your benefit/cost analysis of the risk!

As you know if the fallen tree missed the house it is all out of pocket!

Because trees to add value to the property I have always recommended a formal assessment of their added value to any improved real estate, and thus their before and after pictures may help to allow deduction on federal income tax if the loss exceeds 10% of AGI!

Tree Hugger here! I have over 100 Virginia (spruce) pines and loblolly pines on my property, over 50 Willow Oaks, 10 Red Oaks, 5 white oaks, probably 100 others but none within 50 feet of the House.

Self Insured!

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 16, 2012 @ 4:32 pm


My insurance policy would cover damage to the house by a falling tree. This does reinforce my complacency.

Action taken to mitigate anticipated damage will cost money out-of-pocket while if I wait for actual damage, the money expended will be mostly absorbed through the sunk-cost of insurance.

But clearly this attitude neglects the full scope of potential consequences. If the oak dissects our house it might take my wife or I with it or ruin great-grandma’s quilt hanging at the top of the stairs, or totally disrupt our lives for many days, or… the scenarios might continue.

So the risk-transfer involved with insurance in some ways has, paradoxically, encouraged me to accept higher risk than I might if insurance was not in place.

Again, I think these sort of issues go beyond a personal problem and are suggestive of a whole range of policy/strategy issues related to the role of human choice in resilience or non-resilience.

Comment by William R. Cumming

August 17, 2012 @ 4:47 am

Phil! As you point out not all risk can be spread and property/casualty insurance vis a vis life/health insurance involve different risk factors.

There are deaths each year from trees falling on houses. So given the relative cheapness of accidental death coverage at least the choice is yours.

Comment by Philip J. Palin

August 17, 2012 @ 5:57 am

Bill, I am also suggesting another angle: we tend to underestimate catastrophic risk. This may especially be the case when we are proactive and effective in dealing with non-catastrophic risk. In one of the links embedded in the post Ulku G Oktem, Rafael Wong and Cigdem Oktem write:

Problems go unobserved, as do unsafe conditions, aided by general attitudes of ignorance or unawareness. But the false comfort can often go beyond ignorance of existing risks and turn into something more pernicious, a belief that the organization has ‘risk immunity’ – that everything is proceeding so successfully according to plan that risks cannot exist, thus complacency prevails. In this ‘False Comfort Zone,’ near-miss events take the form of positive illusions, unsafe conditions and unobserved events.

The more “cheap” insurance I have, the more inclined I am to discount the real risk I face. This “insurance” includes our transfer-of-risk to electric utilities, communications companies, public safety and emergency management professionals, et cetera. Because this risk transfer is usually very effective we — not just me — become complacent and increase our liability to catastrophic consequences.

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Comment by walter Hicks

September 15, 2012 @ 5:41 pm

You might want to consider the solution I have adopted.

Given several large short-lived trees in my garden, I had a tree surgeon trim them back so the roots can hold them against the wind on the remaining foliage.

This is a recurring cost. Most things in gardening are.

I still have the shade and the amenity, but the risk of wind damage is much reduced.

I like oak trees. Please take active care of yours.

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