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What is risk and how do we define it?

“Risk” is an everyday word, but in our context of emergency response, it is important that we use it precisely.

That said, this can be difficult as there are various definitions and interpretations of risk as we will discover below.

When considering concepts such as risk at a postgraduate level it is important to evaluate various views; their constituent elements and the relationships between them, the strengths and weaknesses associated and then clearly present an argument for the benefits of using the definition or “view” that you believe to be most appropriate.

When we use the term “risk” in emergency or disaster management we may use different definitions and approaches in different contexts. For example the definitions reviewed below are commonly accepted in an industrial and emergency context. However they are perhaps not appropriate for use in a community resilience context where social vulnerability is a key component.

In conversational use we might use the word ‘risk’ in three ways:

  • risk as likelihood

  • risk as threat of loss

  • risk as potential opportunity

It is important to remember that the terms risk and hazard are not synonymous.

Hazard is the threat that causes the loss or harm – the flood, fire or epidemic. Risk in an emergency response context is often viewed as the probability of a specific hazard or threat actually occurring, resulting in negative impacts or loss (Ball & Ball-King).

Often when we use the term risk, we are referring to a process of gauging the possibility - likelihood or probability of events (good or bad) occurring.

For example:

  • There is a chance my son will pass his driving test tomorrow; there is also a chance that he may be involved in an accident in his first year of driving.

The latter “chance” or probability is borne out by accident statistics, 1 in 5 new drivers have an accident in their first year. This is probabilistic assessment of risk, based on data on the frequency of insured claim from new drivers.

There is a school of political and policy science research is which characterised by positivism; a methodology for developing knowledge based on the assumption that the world around us can be measured and quantified. A positivist would argue that all risk should and can be assessed objectively (Adams, 2002), as in the example above.

But we cannot precisely quantify all risks, there are unknown factors (Gadd et al 2003). In a positivist approach we would try to define the degree of uncertainty and its source. Weather forecasters may tell us there may be a 30% chance of rain today, there is uncertainty in their models and data.

Such approaches require detailed numerical data and analysis. Probabilistic approaches lend themselves to being used in a planning and mitigation context (Gadd et al 2003). In a dynamic real time situation such a data demanding approach is not feasible.

Perhaps a more qualitative or descriptive approach is appropriate?

Using our knowledge and experience to estimate the balance between the possibility of loss and any potential benefits or opportunities. When we do this we make decisions about what is and what is not considered to be ‘tolerable’ or acceptable risk. This is how we voluntarily take risks every day, when our subjective forecasts of the probability of downside risk are low and the benefits of taking the risk are higher, then we take the risk. These decisions are personal, context specific, subjective assessments of risk.

Again uncertainty plays a role in this, making risk ambiguous, difficult to define and result in a range of more or less credible outcomes (Beck 1992). Uncertainty exists where there is no certainty of knowledge – either because that knowledge does not exist (something has not happened before or our experience is limited) or because we are unable to align new conditions to our past experiences or existing information or the combination of resultant consequences are so numerous and variable that the complexity is overwhelming.

So uncertainty undermines our capacity to produce reliable forecasts about the probability of many risks (Drennen et al 2015).

We will look at the theories associated with decision making under risk and uncertainty in more detail later.

When managing emergency incidents, we can know that taking risks is a fundamental part of scenario resolution; in fact it could be argued that this is something expected of responders. We need to utilise an approach to risk assessment and management that is aligned to societies acceptable or tolerable level of risk, we must balance both a positivist approach where feasible and the more subjective demands of individuals and society – researchers would say in reality we apply a critical realist approach, a mix of the two (Drennan et al . 2015) .

The following are three definitions referred to within the Chartered Management Institute workbook on operational risk management (2013); they certainly ring a chord with the complex time and risk critical environment occupied by the emergency responder.

Oxford Living Dictionary

A situation involving exposure to danger. The possibility that something unpleasant or unwelcome might happen.

(English Oxford Living Dictionaries 2018)

The Health and Safety Executive

the chance, high or low, that somebody could be harmed

(Health and Safety executive NA)

BS ISO 31000 Risk Management Principles:

the combination of the probability of an event and its consequences…..[and how this] impacts on the organisation’s ability to achieve its objectives

(The British Standards Institute 2018)

Your task

It is worth examining other definitions of risk in this context.

Research the US NIMS system, the HSE guidance HSG 65 and others you are aware of compare and contrast them with the above definitions.


  • What are the constituent elements used to define risk?

  • What is deemed to be at risk?

Select which one you believe most suits the needs of the emergency manager and give a rationale for your choice.


Chartered Management Institute (2013) Pathways to Management and Leadership Unit 5021V1: Operational Risk Management [online] available from workbooks/Level 5/Sample 5021V1.pdf

English Oxford Living Dictionaries (2018) Definition of risk [online] available form

Health and Safety Executive (NA) Risk - Controlling the risks in the workplace [online] available from

The British Standards Institute (2018) Risk Management - Guidelines [online] available from

Drennan, L.T., McConnell, A., and Stark, A. (2014 Risk Crisis Management in the Public Sector. Routledge)

Beck, U. (1992) From Industrial Society to the Risk Society: Questions of Survival, Social Structure and Ecological Enlightenment’. Theory, Culture and Society 9 (1), 97-123

Gadd et al 2003

Adams, 2002

Ball & Ball-King

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This article is from the free online course:

Managing Risk in an Emergency Context

Coventry University

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