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Living Freedom by Claire Wolfe. Musings about personal freedom and finding it within ourselves.

Want to Comment on a blog post? Look for and click on the blue No Comments or # Comments at the end of each post.

Claire Wolfe

Preparedness Priorities, part V

Tuesday, October 23rd, 2012

Risk assessment

I’m not a methodical person. My own best decisions have always been made by gut, and my best actions taken on “informed instinct.”

Of course, not everyone works that way. And when facing a bewildering variety of unknowns, even “gut” people need tools to help them sort through the alternatives.

Fortunately, some blog readers are experienced professionals in fields like security and emergency management. Today, I’m turning the blog over to one of those, MJR. Here’s his take on how to assess risks and decide which ones we should act on.


MJR writes:

One of the little things you might want to think about, concerning figuring out what to do and in which order when prepping, is a basic risk assessment for each risk you identify.

This assessment is broken down into the following:

  • Identify, characterize, and assess all the threats to you from whatever source.
  • Assess your vulnerability to these threats.
  • Determine the risk (i.e. the expected likelihood and consequences of specific types of harm to you).
  • Identify ways to reduce those risks.
  • Prioritize risk reduction measures based on a strategy you will make.

The formula for the above is:

Impact of Event x Probability of Occurrence.

Now in plain English…

To figure out how bad the risks are first start with the rate (or probability) of an occurrence taking place, (event occurs once a year, once in ten years, once in 100 years etc.). Rate each risk from 1 to 5, with 1 being the lowest chance of something taking place.

Then multiply this number by the impact severity of the event, rated from 1 through 5. This range is usually arbitrarily divided into three sub-ranges. The overall risk assessment would be Low, Medium or High, depending on the sub-range containing the number that you arrived at.

For instance if your answer was between 1 and 8 the risk is low. If the answer is between 9 and 16 then the risk is moderate and if the answer is between 17 and 25 then it is high.

Here is a graphic that shows how probability/severity can be laid out in a grid (Ed: This graphic also uses a slightly different scale for evaluating and planning):

Source of graphic

There is probably a heck of a lot that I am forgetting but this is a good starter if you want to judge how bad the things you are facing really are.


Claire here again: When I sat down to try these calculations, I found it helpful to make two different charts — one for disasters that might be catastrophic but short and another for hard-times scenarios that might hit less hard but unwind more slowly. While some types of preparedness planning apply to both, in other ways, they have different requirements.

It also didn’t take long to discover that — no surprise — a lot of subjectivity and guesswork goes into this. First, you have to correctly identify all kinds of threats; it would be easy to miss one.

And probability? That can be a stumper. Even if you live in an area with predictable disasters (e.g. in tornado alley or hurricane country), what are the chances you or your community will personally get hit? You can only give it your best estimate.

Where I live, the absolute most catastrophic blow would come from a Cascadia mega-earthquake and tsunami. These hit on average every 300 years. It’s been almost 313 years since the last one. But geology doesn’t give a darn. Sometimes there’s a 600-year gap between “Big Ones.” Or the pressure can release in a series of major quakes instead of one mega. In any case, severity is “catastrophic” on the grid — a big “5” without doubt. But likelihood? Three? Four? Five? Only Mother Nature knows for sure.

Interesting exercise, definitely. And it might help anybody put some of those extreme zombie apocalypse fears into perspective.

Thanks, MJR.

19 Responses to “Preparedness Priorities, part V”

  1. Sam Says:

    I just wanted to say thanks. This is very helpful stuff. As a newbie I always felt like I was in quick sand and the more I tried to “prep” the deeper I sank. So seriously thank you for these posts. I have been sharing this info with friends and on FB and had a lot of really good communication.


  2. Concealed Carrying Cyclist Says:

    I second what Sam says, not just because I love alliteration, but because it’s refreshing to see common sense brought into a subject that, all too often, is taken to such extremes that it’s just easier to ignore it all as the paranoid ramblings of asocial nutjobs.

  3. Todd Says:

    Excellent stuff here Claire! Being a follow my “gut” type guy, this risk assessment tool will only help. Just gotta crunch some numbers now.

  4. just waiting Says:

    This is a great tool, thanks MJR and Claire. I used these for many years in my profession, and they do work just as well in assessing the status of your personal condition.

    One thing thats difficult for many of us to do is to stay focused and limit the scope of our activities. We’ve all done it, start a project only to have it morph into a bigger or multiple projects, losing site of or abandoning the original goal and spending way over the original budget. I started out replacing a simple $79 screen door last year, ended up tearing out a wall and installing a $1500 sliding door instead. I know we all have stories.

    Prepping is much the same, scope creeps. I know every time I prep shop, I see things I don’t have, that I didn’t know existed, that I’m told people like me are buying, and that I absolutely need to have (damn you Amazon). It would be easy to go broke buying crap neither I nor some scavenger 50 years from now will probably ever use.

  5. David Says:

    Wow. I think I’m going to write my first rude comment here. Will the skies fall?

    This reminds me of some project management stuff back when I was working for Dell and they used something called the “Microsoft Solutions Framework” (aka MSF). I got told I needed to attend a class on this stuff.

    Basically it was a touchie-feelie thing where whichever people happened to show up to a meeting would rate probability on a numeric scale (no research required) and then rate impact…again on a numerical scale but with no dollar figures involved. So they produced a guess multiplied by a guess, which was then recorded in a document. Then they’d write down a WAG about what we’d do. At which point? We had completed Risk Management for the project!

    I walked out of that class. Told my boss about it, wondering whether I’d be fired. He said I’d screwed up, all right. According to him I should’ve grabbed my head, jumped on the table, screamed, and run out into the noonday heat.

    None of this ever turned out to be useful in practice, but it did help lots of middle management people find something to do in their endless rounds of meetings. Plus, there was the illusion of having done something.

    Math tip: a pseudo-numerical guess multiplied by a guess, in a situation where 4 is not necessarily even close to 2 + 2 because the guesses are not tied to anything, is feel-good claptrap.


    Though if you can actually find a way to quantify probability (without just making stuff up) and do the same for impact, you might find this useful. If it turns out that the relationship between the two holds such that all items yielding something above (or below) a certain result should be treated in at least a vaguely similar manner. Which, to my mind, is far from obvious.

  6. David Says:

    Also, somewhere in there the likelihood of _successful_ action/mitigation ought to be considered. Perhaps it could also be multiplied by something.

  7. David Says:

    Oh, and the cost of whatever steps you might take toward action/mitigation, which should include opportunity cost.

    I realize I’m being a bit of a jerk, and I hope I recover soon. It’s just that this sort of thing, if actually used for decision-making without considering its limitations, scares me a little bit. Because I’ve seen that happen, though in the context of computer hardware & software projects, and it wasn’t pretty.

    Still. I take some of it back. It might be a way to start to get a handle on what does and doesn’t matter. If you don’t take it too seriously, it may be helpful.

  8. Claire Says:

    David — The skies still seem to be intact (though locally stuff is definitely falling out of them; is that your doing, damn you?)

    Indeed, risk assessment procedures and charts are just tools, which can be used or misused. The idea here is to help people gain perspective on their own personal risk. And I expect while that still involves a lot of guesswork, there’s less likelihood of fraud, finagling, and foolishness when it’s one’s own arse and one’s family that’s on the line.

  9. David Says:

    All true. I think my initial reaction was mostly from old wounds. :/

    Anyway, just thinking about this stuff and coming to grips with what you already know & feel is probably a good idea. Just as long as nobody goes away thinking either (1) they’re done and and don’t have to think about it again, or (2) this exercise is somehow infallible and produces reliable results that should dictate action.

    If it’s just a way to reframe the questions involved and come at ’em from a different perspective, I don’t see how that can be bad.

    Sorry about the rain, btw. I didn’t mean to.

  10. Woody Says:

    David, When I first saw that chart I had thoughts similar to yours. Assigning a probability to some future event is just guessing, after all. Dressing it up in a fancy chart to make it look all scientific and stuff doesn’t improve that if it’s a bad guess to begin with. Maybe I’m just grumpy because my crystal ball is in the shop.

    I chuckled at your Dell story. I spent enough time in the belly of a corporate beast to know of what you speak.

    Oh, and it’s raining here too, you have impressive range.

  11. slidemansailor Says:

    Probability X Severity exercises are only as good as the operators. For me, they help organize a blizzard of threats for my own purposes AND help when others start shotgunning the threats person-to-person or in a group of concerned fellows.

    I blogged one of them here: and am happy to report that none of the disasters I feared as imminent have come to pass … yet. Significantly, I am more prepared for my anticipated crises than I was and continue to improve in some priority order. And THAT is the point: to put some coherence to your actions.

  12. Claire Says:

    “I am more prepared for my anticipated crises than I was and continue to improve in some priority order. And THAT is the point: to put some coherence to your actions.”

    ‘Zactly, slideman! You got it.

  13. Claire Says:

    Also: No one tool works for everybody (as should be obvious). But when facing all manner of unknowns, some systematizing can help anybody think straighter.

    That said, I also worked with (never in, but with, as a freelancer) Fortune 100 corps. I was there through Total Quality Management and the global obsession with Documenting Best Practices (those rows and rows of binders spelling out exactly what employees should do in every situation always struck me as being tombstones over the grave of creativity and experience). Each new corporate fad was treated as a religion — The One Great Thing that was going to eliminate all problems — just as I’m sure risk assessment has been in the post-911 age.

    But treating it as a tool and not as a panacea … I suggest even doubters give it a try for evaluating thorny questions.

  14. David Says:

    I guess I’ll never be comfortable with a mathematical model in which there’s no reason to believe 2×4 is even slightly related to 4×2 but both are written as 8.

    OTOH my primary goal is to become a curmudgeon. It’s a lot of work but I think the rewards are awesome.

    Actually I gave my prospective wife a quiz many years ago. I told her I wanted to eventually live in a tar-paper shack in the woods on somebody else’s property, and get into the habit of firing a shotgun loaded with rock salt toward intruding teenagers, yelling “Get off mah land, ye varmints!”

    Then I asked her how comfortable she was with that. After some thought, she responded: “I could help you reload.”

    See? Preparation.

  15. Matt, another Says:

    I’ve been using similar risk assessment most of my career. Even though numbers are calculated it just allows us to put a numerical priority to risk that we can actually see. It does provide some level of objective analysis that can be shared with others. The two keys to providing value to that matrix is identifying in writing what the risk is and why it is valued at such a number. The second key is defining the mitigation strategy (if one exists) to bring the risk down to manageable/survivable levels.

    If I am training persons and the task to be trained is dangerous to the catastrophic and frequent levels, it is either not trained, or trained with significant safety procedures and precautions outlined and adhered to. When we train with explosives which could be a 5×5 risk, mitigation includes EMT and ambulance on hand, fire department on hand, strict levels of pre-training, close supervison, protective gear etc.

    Now, that matrix might seem kind of cumbersome for most people. It probably is. Don’t dismiss it out of hand though, modify it and make it your own. Simplify it by simply X-ing the box, or color coding etc. Mathe isn’t required to make sense of it. This type of visual matrix might help family members visualize potential threats and hazards without scaring them or overwhelming them with other data.

  16. just waiting Says:

    David, since the numbers don’t really mean anything, maybe you could replace them with symbols?

    Since this is a discussion about the shtf, I’m thinking of using little bags of s**t. 1 bag isn’t bad, but 25 would be a true shtf-storm.

    Maybe thinking “25 bags of s**t will hit my fan in the future if x happens, but only 10 bags will it it if its y” might be a better way of looking at it.

    Just a thought

  17. EN Says:

    I like it. It’s not perfect, but I think Claire already covered it, it’s good enough, particularly for someone mired in, “what now?” I’d also bet that no matter what you decide to prep for they end up all being the same in relation to water, food, shelter, etc. Duration and location becomes your biggest concerns. Having done risk assessment on some potentially serious subjects (the kind where failure leads you to become an unemployed pariah of national repute) it needs to be pointed out that you always start out in space. It almost always involves looking at one particular threat but the group soon finds itself working on resources and trying to make a more informed opinion. The point of these exercises isn’t fodder for curmudgeon wannabes, it’s to begin building a frame work, allowing for sharper and sharper focus as time goes on that creates an understanding of what’s possible within the organization. As I take Claire’s intent in this series, its allowing the Noob to look at resources and put them where they do the most good, but also maintain flexibility to move said resources to other problems that will inevitably (and quite unexpectedly) pop up. Once you start seeing the entire field of play in relation to your resources a lot of things become clear. The downside is the Rawlsian tendency to go to the edge early and often. Nothing’s perfect where human dynamics are concerned.

  18. David Says:

    just waiting: Ah, but the primary danger from my POV lies in mistaking the results of the exercise for objective data when they’re worse than merely subjective. They’re more like subjective data that got folded in on itself, run through a wringer and…oh. Maybe something shat it out, afterward. So you’ve got me there.

    Since I’m relating everything to my wife today (even though she’s not from Arkansas), the problem I see is sort of like the way she used to think her Volvo S80’s fuel gauge was “more accurate” than the one in my ’69 VW Bug b/c it had so many digits in the readout instead of a needle. When in fact it was far less accurate.

    Those little bags are all too tangible. Or at least I’m afraid they might be. Also, if you don’t mind I’m going to just assume you’re actually collecting them right now.

  19. just waiting Says:

    Damn right they’re tangible! Each bag represents a threat or weakness. Lack of bags shows your strength and opportunity.
    The mere fact that a bag exists means their contents can hit the fan someday. So collecting, hell no. Better to not let too much s**t pile up, especially when you can do something about it while the sun is still shining.

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