When we launched Snøg Avalanche Buddy, we also decided to post the app on some winter sports forums. The reactions we got there were mixed, but mainly very negative. Part of the negativity was aimed at the safety of the app. In one case we were even threatened, that we were putting people in danger. The whole thing gave me the insight that people aren’t thinking thoroughly enough about ski safety in particular and safety in general. Thinking about it, I found out that safety is a three step process of Prevention, Protection and Emergency Response. In this post I will explain what I mean with that. After that, I will talk about ski safety and try to put Snøg’s safety properties into perspective.
What is safety?
100% safety does not exist. Nowhere ever. Even if you have a helmet, seatbelt and super-brakes, there is always the chance of lightning hitting your car and turning it into a fire ball. So, talking about safety basically means talking about risk. How do you treat risks, how do we try to lower them and what do we do if stuff happens anyway? Let’s first define risk. Risk is the product of the chance of something unfortunate to happen and the damage it creates when it does happen. So, dying of a meteor impact is a low risk (low chance, high damage), dying of the common fever is a low risk (high chance, low damage), dying in a car wreck is a reasonable high risk (moderate chance, high damage). We try to control the higher risks, either by lowering the chance of bad things happening, or by lowering the damage if it happens. And this is exactly where the three steps come in.
In the first step, it is all about lowering the chances of bad things to happen. This is by far the most important factor in safety. In fact, it is so important, people have been calling it primary safety measures. Prevention basically means staying out of harm’s way. In the ubiquitous car analogy, this means for example not getting into your car, when road or weather conditions are bad. Or driving defensively. There is a lot of technology going on in prevention of accidents.
Examples of prevention measures: good brakes, not running red lights, holding the rail when climbing the stairs, etc.
The second step is about lowering the effects of an accident, may it happen even after all our prevention efforts. We call these secondary safety measures. It is all about, well, protecting yourself. Often, these measures are the only ones called safety measures and people completely forget the primary measures.
Examples of protection measures: helmets, seat belts, knee protectors, roll cages, etc.
Okay, so now we were really unlucky. We tried to lower the chances, lower the damage and still we got in an accident. Our last line of defense is emergency response. This is all about getting you as fast as possible into a safe spot again. In our car analogy, think of a system called OnStar that is available in the US. That system will call 911 when it detects an accident.
Examples of emergency response measures: the fire department’s jaws-of-life, always being able to call 112, etc.
Now, what about skiing?
The three steps of safety of course also apply to ski safety and a whole industry is created around ski safety.
- prevention: in skiing, prevention is very important. Check out the weather predictions. Don’t go skiing on slopes that are beyond your level of expertise. Main thing concerning avalanches really is to check out avalanche risks before you go into the backcountry. There are apps for that too.
- protection: these ones we all know. Wear helmets, use airbags if you go into the backcountry. By the way, kind of hard to make an app for this.
- emergency response: this is where the most discussion is about. The beacons where a lot of people rely there life on, are actually third level safety measures.
In all the discussions on all the forums, many people fail to see the big picture. They buy an avalanche beacon, (mostly) wear a helmet and think they are untouchable. If you do that, think about this: only 30% of people with a beacon are saved from an avalanche. Besides that, the largest risk of an avalanche is not being buried, but hitting a tree or rock. Beacons are your last line of defense, not your first.
And remember: “the mountain doesn’t know you’re an expert“.
Many of these insights were inspired / taken from Bruce Schneier’s blog, even though he mainly talks about security and terrorism. The ideas on risks are basically the same though.