The story of the boy who cried wolf is primal, told to us in childhood and virtually etched in our synapses. It is a formative fable whose impact is universal, one of those stores which, while ostensibly aimed at children, actually help to set out rules of good conduct and effective ways of behaving which apply to all humans, children and adults alike. The moral, of course, is not only, don’t tell lies but don’t raise the alarm for something that could happen but isn’t happening. Repeated false alarms and alerts about something that doesn’t actually happen severely destroys the credibility of those raising the alarms. Worse, when a real situation arises that needs our attention to take avoiding action to avert danger and tragedy, but the warning issues from the teller of previous false alarms, they simply aren’t believed or not taking seriously.
Any of this sound familiar? Three weeks ago most of Europe’s airspace was grounded leaving hundreds of thousands of travellers stranded throughout the globe. Holiday plans were ruined and people were left high and dry, in some cases penniless or forced to spend thousands of pounds in extra cash they could ill afford. Airlines (admittedly not a popular cause at the best of times) lost billions and before the ban was lifted it was beginning to have a serious effect on already recession hit economies.
The cause? Well, as you will be all too familiar with, a volcano had erupted in Iceland spewing out ash. This ash had flowed through glacial ice which meant that the ensuing cloud contained ice particles which when cooled became brittle and if sucked into aircraft jet engines could disable them, causing complete engine failure and the plane to lose power with perilous consequences. Add to this, the prevailing wind was blowing the volcanic ash in a south-westerly direction over the British Isles and Northern Europe. Result: total shutdown of airspace, lest there was the least chance of the ash damaging planes over Europe’s crowded skies. At first glance this seems commendable. What are numerous, angry, disgruntled passengers stuck in airport terminals compared to the fatalities stemming from a downed jet laden with passengers, including children, as a result of absorbing the icy residue from Iceland’s volcano? You can’t argue with safety first every time surely?
Well no, hypothetically you can’t. But safety first taken to its extreme limit would mean that you wouldn’t move from your bed in the morning because there’s an element of irreducible risk every time you venture out (not of course forgetting that your bed may be in a place which has an element of risk: such as potential gas leak, fire hazard, electrical fault or similar. Oh and don’t forget the possibility of contracting food poisoning from that egg you had with your toast for breakfast!). The point is that you can’t get rid of risk. What you have to do to live your life without succumbing to becoming a paranoid, fearful living wreck is to take a balanced risk assessment, weighing up all the pros and cons of taking a particular course of action to allow us to undertake even the most routine daily tasks.
Accordingly, most people in their daily lives make a risk assessment balancing the possibility of risk or danger with its probability. By this yardstick, if something is very improbable then the possibility of it happening to me, right now is so very slim as to be extremely unlikely; though it is not impossible it is very improbable and, therefore, it can reasonably safely be discounted as an imminent and present danger. Most of us adopt this rule of thumb almost unconsciously and this allows us to get though life.
The past thirty odd years has witnessed the emergence of strong emphasis on risk averse and health and safety throughout contemporary western societies, with Britain being in its vanguard. This has manifested itself in every walk of life and has been likened to the development of a culture of fear and paranoia. The health and safety-come-risk averse focus backed up by legislation and a myriad of rules, regulations and protocols takes the contrary view to the rule of thumb most individuals apply to daily life: Within this framework if a specific risk or danger is possible, irrespective of how improbable that risk or danger is of actually occurring, then it must be guarded against and the public protected from it. Thus health and safety and risk aversion, far from being based on a balanced calculation of risk, become an all-encompassing mantle enveloping the whole of society in its suffocating embrace..
Which brings us back to the volcanic ash cloud? We now know with a great degree of certainty that all the misery, pain and heartache caused by the blanket air ban were utterly unnecessary. The UK Civil Aviation Authority has now admitted that any volcanic ash that was flowing over Britain was “virtually undetectable”. No proper evaluation or testing as to the extent and real level of risk posed by the ash was carried out. It was airlines themselves, losing millions of pounds, who by sending up their own test flights and proving categorically that there was no danger from the ash, were able to provide the evidence that prompted the UK government, no doubt paralysed by fear during an election campaign that whatever decision they made could rebound on them, to reopen the airports.
It was the National Air Traffic Control Service (NATS), who made the fateful decision to close the airspace and halt air travel. And their course of action was prompted by the fact that: basically a volcano has exploded in Iceland, the wind’s blowing our way, it might get into aircraft and disable them, lives might be lost, ergo shut the skies. By this criteria airspace in the Pacific Rim, the so-called “ring of fire” and other global volcanic hotspots would be permanently closed, as there are constant volcanic eruptions occurring there. To repeat no real adequate risk assessment was carried out, just a hurried reaction and the imposition of a blanket ban.
To be fair, NATS and any comparable organisation like them in modern society are operating in a hothouse febrile atmosphere. Almost certainly going through their directors and senior manager’s minds as they watched those radar screens over distant Iceland, reinforced by persistent media reporting of a British Airways flight in 1982 which lost all power in its four engines and nearly faced catastrophe after flying through an ash cloud directly above an erupting volcano and not hundreds or even thousands of miles away from it (the flight crew were able to regain power and the plane landed safely with no casualties), was that if they didn’t close the skies and a plane did crash because of the ash, they would cop it from a voracious media and accusing politicians quick to ascribe blame. NATS were only responding to an environment and culture which puts the premium on safety first.
There is a real danger here though and it brings us back to the story of the boy who cried wolf. A premature decision by NATS and its counterparts throughout Europe to close airspace because of an unassessed hypothetical risk from volcanic ash closed most of Europe to aircraft and led to chaos. As the days passed, traveller’s frustrations mounted. More importantly, led by the airlines, an evidential base began to build up that showed the ban was an over-reaction. The media, which initially was uncritical of the ban, began to pick up on this and started to report stories questioning it. A critical mass was building up against the ban and the government executed a rapid turnabout when it sensed which way the wind was blowing (no pun intended).
This is a classic reaction/counter-reaction swing of the pendulum where decisions which should be based on sober, realistic assessments are really at the mercy of external influences which can change rapidly. The problem now is one of credibility; having over-reacted and having been found out doing so regarding volcanic ash, the travelling public, the media and airlines will treat any future shutdowns or warnings from air traffic control bodies such as NATS with considerable sceptism. As a consequence they in turn will be incredibly reluctant to close airspace again lest they be regarded as having cried wolf and caused needless havoc once before. But its not only credibility that is at stake here; the authority of those we invest with the expertise and knowledge to make sound judgements regarding the safety of travelling by air has been impugned and may be difficult to recover. And this is the danger of over-reaction particularly around risk. Volcanic ash is dangerous to aircraft, especially so when mixed with brittle ice particles, but because of the fiasco over the last few weeks a reasoned assessment of likely risk around that danger has been considerably reduced.
We see the same pattern developing in other areas of public life: health, social care, concerns about terrorism, child protection and other areas with the same swings from one reaction to another and the same consequences for trust in the credibility and authority of those tasked with discharging responsibility in these areas.
The ultimate irony of the all-enveloping health and safety, risk aversion culture, is that when it cries wolf and indulges in near hysterical over-reaction in its striving to eliminate risk, it actually increases the probability of danger for all of us. What is so sadly missing from our current situation is those time honoured factors: balance, impartial judgement and not a little common sense.-