Determining when to launch — and when not to is the most fundamental and consequential decision the helicopter crew can make, but how do you make it? New federal mandates now require crews to use risk assessment, but which risk assessment tool is right for your organization?

For my money, you can't go wrong with the Operational Risk Management (ORM) system, a color-coded, numerical and continuous operational risk management scale developed by the U.S. Coast Guard in 1996. (U.S. Coast Guard. "Operational Risk Management." Commandant Instruction 3500.3.) The USCG's ORM is based around the following four operating principles:

  • accept no unnecessary risks
  • accept necessary risk when benefits outweigh costs
  • make risk decisions at the appropriate level
  • integrate ORM into operations and planning at all levels

The latter two of these are particularly interesting and require further explanation. According to the USCG, making risk decisions at the appropriate level means the level that "most effectively allocates resources to reduce the risk, eliminate the hazard, and implement controls. This includes ground rescue personnel scrutinizing their own plan to request a helicopter rescue and whether it is truly appropriate; incident personnel developing a plan of action to ensure subordinates are aware of their own limitations; and when to refer a decision to a higher level."

Integrating ORM into operations and planning at all levels would seem complex, but the USCG simply means the doctrine should be applied during all mission phases, including the actual mission itself, advising "risk can change dramatically during an actual mission." Just because launching was a good idea, it doesn't mean completing the mission is.

Air crews and their support personnel need to know how to slow the tempo down in order to regroup and re-evaluate during any mission stage.

Preparing for actual missions, the USCG then uses a personal risk scoring system — a 0 (no risk) to 10 (maximum) ranking that is completed by multiple members of the rescue team and their support personnel. The scoring is compiled and placed on a green-amber-red scale as part of its decision-making tool.

It's simple, it's fast, and it works. It scores the following variables: supervision, planning, contingency resources, communication, team selection, team fitness, environment and incident complexity.

Green scores below 36 mean the mission is go. Amber scores of between 36 and 60 suggest moderate risk, requiring additional controls and mitigation before the mission can be launched. Red scores of 61 to 80 mean the mission is a no-go. After scoring individually, team members discuss and review their scores together, re-enforcing the safety culture.

No mission is without risk, but understanding which risks are untenable and which ones are manageable is the key to survival. And that starts with the go, no-go decision.