The avalanche industry has long engaged with questions about public safety and the effectiveness of established risk communication and education services. Traditionally, avalanche experts have focused on accident data and fatality statistics (e.g., Greene et al., 2006; Niemann, Paul, & Rahman, 2022; Peitzsch et al., 2018; Techel, Zweifel, & Winkler, 2014). While fatality reports provide insightful case studies, accident data alone are fundamentally limited. First, the calculation of meaningful accident rates suffers from the lack of reliable estimates for the number of backcountry users, which are difficult and cost prohibitive. (Campbell & Haegeli, 2022; Langford, Haegeli, & Rupf, 2020). Second, reliable avalanche accident information is typically only available for fatal events. Thus, the resulting picture of public avalanche risk management promotes a knowledge deficit model, which spotlights failures and attributes them to a deficiency in individuals rather than limitations in public safety services (Simis, Madden, Cacciatore, &Yeo, 2016). To better target how well public avalanche safety services reduce the risk for the recreating public, we need to engage a different approach that guides us toward asking more constructive questions and targets improvements in services.
What is missing from the avalanche industry’s tool kit is a foundational, applied framework for systematically planning and evaluating public avalanche safety services. In this study, we aim to address this industry gap using a literature review. This approach allows us to look at the specifics of the avalanche context through various pertinent theoretical lenses and re-visit and define the fundamentals, including: 1) explicitly defining the public avalanche safety problem and the primary objective of services, 2) comprehensively detailing the problem landscape, and 3) identifying evaluative approaches that are best suited to the avalanche industry’s primary objective within the problem landscape.
Our framework is grounded in several established bodies of theoretical and practical work. To outline the purpose of public avalanche safety services and define clear objectives, we draw from the disaster risk reduction and risk governance literature, such as the Sendai Framework (United Nations Office for Disaster Risk Reduction, 2015). We look to Social-Ecological Systems theory (Berkes & Folke, 1998) to understand the nature of the problem, detail the problem landscape in our human-environment system, and organize its complexity from macro to micro scales across the multiple dimensions. To outline the components of avalanche risk management within the human-environment system, we refer to ISO 31:000 (ISO, 2018) and existing avalanche research. For guidance on evaluative approaches, we borrow concepts from public health research and community-engaged research practices to outline a process for conducting needs assessments and co-defining evaluative criteria that can be empirically tested.
As Carl Jung (1968) states, “to ask the right question is already half the solution to a problem.” Asking questions that target the effectiveness of services remains at the forefront of where the avalanche industry can make improvements. Our framework aims to provide a practical guide for informing more targeted and constructive questions to track and evaluate improvements.