Parallel lives

December 14, 2007

A father and son at the same university look at risk and crisis management.

The Father:

The keyboard of my new PC arrived with a label to the effect that prolonged use is likely to render me a physical wreck - a warning that came about 20 years too late, but the intention was good. The previous keyboard had a similar label, but it survived for only one day. In order to read the tiny print on the warning I had to lean right over the desk, knocking my coffee over in the process. The outcome was spectacular but predictable.

Thinking about it, I wonder whether the warning was precipitated more by the fear of a lawsuit than a desire on the part of the manufacturer to ensure my well-being. A sad indictment of the times we live in, I guess.

I come from a generation that existed, and mostly survived, before the modern concept of risk management was invented. Our lab, in common with most others in academia at the time, was a place that had to be treated with significant respect if you wanted to emerge with all your bits intact. The learning curve could be steep and was littered with pitfalls, like the centrifuge that allowed you to open the lid when it was doing 3,000rpm.

The risks were moderated by a generation of technicians who acted as guides and mentors to the post-grads who arrived in the department each September, intent on messy self-destruction. Despite being underpaid and under-regarded, these dedicated professionals managed to turn out generations of lecturers imbued with a healthy respect for danger and a surprisingly good grip on reality.

Fieldwork used to be the same. The closest I came to an early memorial was probably when I was soil-sampling on a small arctic island that consisted mostly of ice. I hammered a lump of frozen moraine out of the side of a steep gulley, trotted back to my rucksack for a poly bag - and watched with bowel-loosening dismay as the whole 20ft bank collapsed on the spot where I had been standing.

Most risky of all, though, were the departmental sherry parties. The senior common room would be commandeered and supplied with dangerous quantities of booze, ostensibly with the goal of welcoming newcomers to the department. Goodness knows what they made of it, especially the non- drinkers. The security man would lie low as the loud music, whoops and crashes of advanced revelry filled the night. After liver-crippling amounts of alcohol had been consumed, those still standing would decamp to town for an Indian of devastating strength.

Today, the whole research and teaching environment is infinitely more regulated: the paperwork is always in place, the risk assessments have been made, the labelling and signage is correct. I can't help wondering, though, whether students still get exposed to the raw edge of fear and panic that was the signature of my own learning process.

I don't want people to suffer from exposure to unmanaged danger, but if they don't know how to handle risk there is a danger that they will reject change, always go for the safe option, never appoint the slightly weird but interesting candidate, and insist that plain-vanilla mediocrity is the only proper course to take.

The Son:

In order to show that I can handle the unexpected, I will tell a tale of what happened a few months ago while I was task leader of the Canal Conservation Society.

One cold day on the banks of the local waterway we assembled. What we were doing is pretty much irrelevant and, to be honest, I've forgotten. In all probability it was cold, wet and thankless. These jobs usually are.

Half the fun is finishing the task, the other the macho-sounding stories we relate in the bar afterwards. With this in mind, we were back on the bus as the light began to fade and ready for the off. The president yelled from the front seats to ask if everyone was there. The answer was negative. One was missing - the first in the history of the club. Visions of drowning and negligence lawsuits rose up before the committee as we raced half a mile back to where we had been working. No sign of the missing member. A panicked few minutes of searching and calling ensued, but answer came there none.

Things began to get serious. Search parties were formed, high-? visibility jackets and radios were issued and the great student hunt was under way. Half an hour later there was still no sign.

At that point things got a bit beyond us. The missing member hadn't been seen since lunch, and that put him four hours' travel in any direction. The president picked up the phone to the university, which called the police and the guy's parents. We returned to the local office we'd been working from. I say "we". Someone had to stay out in the rain in case he turned up. Guess who?

The president, now royally pissed off, began rallying the troops and checking the towpaths with the aid of the official van. An associate and I remained out in the rain. At intervals the radio would gibber nonsense into the night air, which after a few repetitions would translate into a message that he hadn't reappeared.

An hour went by and we got word that the local search-and-rescue volunteers were being put on standby. Five minutes after this, another spurt of gibberish polluted the night air. Two minutes later, the van pulled up alongside us and took us back to the bus. We were greeted by the missing man with a can of Guinness in one hand and a kebab in the other.

It turned out he'd got peckish around three and walked the four miles to the nearest village. Before I had a chance to grab a spade and take up a batting stance, I noticed the police car that had picked him up. The policemen weren't best pleased either, but they frown on assault with a deadly weapon when it's happening in front of them.

And there you have it, crisis management in a nutshell: don't panic, let others do the running around, and wait for matters to resolve themselves. And always commit your murders in private.

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