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July 8, 2015

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Be safe and vigilant

By David Towlson, RRC International

Some risks are more difficult to pin down than you can imagine.

In the modern world there is understandably a great deal of concern about terrorist incidents and how safe we really are. This has been brought into sharp focus yet again with the recent appalling killings in Tunisia – killings in a place where you would expect to be perfectly safe – and the ten year anniversary of the 7/7 London bombings.

While the threat of terrorism is mostly considered a security issue (personal and national), it does share the common language of risk. These terms are very familiar to safety people. However, this is a far more complex and unsatisfactory risk assessment than most safety people would encounter (and my respect goes to people who have to make such decisions based on very little information).

When it comes to assessing your own individual risk, it is difficult to be objective. This is especially so if you have either experienced an event (like terrorism or an accident) yourself or know someone who has. There is high degree of uncertainty – once an event has happened it is difficult to know if it is likely to happen again (and, importantly, happen to you again) and, if so, where and when. You are never going to be 100 per cent happy with your assessment, which, in safety and health terms, puts it more into the ‘tolerability’ criteria realm, familiar to the high hazard industries.

A personal example. The chances of being struck by lightning seem very remote – but once my house had been struck, the probability never again seemed quite as remote.  Even though I know that lightning is unlikely to strike again soon, and that it could realistically happen anywhere to anyone, I have a heightened awareness.

This takes risk from the theoretical to the personal and, when it comes to personal risk assessment, there is a strong emotional component, regardless of the theoretical, objective “risk to society as a whole”. In reality, most people are concerned about the risk to them personally. It does not help them to talk about some nebulous risk to society as a whole. That is because, in reality, it is the individual that bears the greatest consequences, should it happen to them. In truth, this is as much about the level at which we are prepared to personally accept risk (or at least tolerate it) as about risk perception.

The people at the FCO have faced calls to declare Tunisia unsafe as a result of the terrorist incident. That is a totally understandable reaction; but I can also understand why the FCO have so far resisted and simply called for vigilance. The reality is that incidents like this are very different from a war or incursion, where the threat is ongoing, immediate and obvious.

On the other hand, isolated terrorist incidents in previously considered safe areas pose a significant challenge to how you can declare something safe or unsafe. That’s because such incidents could potentially occur anywhere (as we have seen). It is virtually impossible to eliminate such threats and yet still enjoy most of the freedoms we enjoy in the west. It is a tough job for security services to identify such people early enough before they strike. But, as I said, that does not wash with those who justifiably fear it. This means it is exceedingly difficult to come to a considered judgement on such risks and, as a result, the usual, eventual practical solution is often for individuals to largely carry on but remain vigilant.

Some risks are just more complicated than you think. Understandable then that people can come to different perspectives on what action to take and, importantly, what level of risk they are prepared to accept. There is not going to be a single satisfactory answer to that.

David Towlson is director of training and quality for RRC

 

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