On saying no

I was watching a video today on YouTube that someone posted of them dismantling a tree that had died two years ago. The tree was looking pretty tired and the climber was using rigging techniques to dismantle it.

This got me thinking.

But before I go any further I need to clarify a couple of points:

I know the person who posted the video and he is a strong climber and I would deem him to be a competent operator. Of course a video always is only able to reflect one aspect of a situation – and not even that very well. So it is perfectly possible – and probably even likely – that the risks this job entailed were well managed. In which case I wish to make clear that the following thoughts are not applicable to this specific case, yet without a doubt they touch upon a reality of tree work.

The impression I got from the video was that what I was watching was a pretty borderline situation, with a climbing anchor point with the bark already coming off it and a tree with a very wide and spreading canopy.

I can totally understand how such a situation could evolve:

You go and look at the job, the situation is  a real challenge, tight location, with lots of structure and stuff under the tree and a potential client looking to you for a solution. So what are you doing to do? Should be ok, let’s bosh it out… Yet realistically, how do you assess residual strength of a Horse Chestnut that has been dead for two years? Where do you cross the line? If I had to hazard a guess I would suggest that we have entered into the realm of tunnel vision and target fixation here: I am able to recognize the starting and ending points, yet I blank out the in-between, the actually nitty-gritty of  getting from A to B…

In such situations I have found the term of ultimate un-ambiguity can come in very handy: NO. Or, if you prefer, “No, ma’m/ sir”.

In the end one has to ask the question who has been negligent.

In this case, without a doubt, the client failed to take action in regards to an obviously dead tree in their garden in a densely populated area with lots of other gardens around it – for not just one, but two years. Now, even someone who does not have a clue about trees is aware that leaflessness is a sure-fire indicator that not all is well with your tree. Two years in succession, well, it’s probably dead. You do not have to be a rocket scientist to figure that one out.

The point I am trying to make is this: up to whom is it to take the risk to sort this mess out? Is it up to you to provide a solution, i.e. dismantling a potentially structurally unsound tree without damage to its surroundings with no access for machinery available? Or does a consequence of the client’s inaction have to be that he or she has to take into account that damage it going to be inevitable in order to guarantee the safety of the person aloft.

I am totally clear in my mind that this is not our risk to take. To be forced to take unacceptable risks due to someone else’s lack of vision just does not make sense, neither from an operational, nor from an ethical point of view.

The HSE and Forestry Commission’s Evaluation of current rigging and dismantling practices used in arboriculture document has a clever flow chart that illustrates clearly the options available to us to resolve such a situation…

As you can see, the final route, option four, describes a situation in which there is not access for machinery, the tree cannot be stabilized and there are not anchor point alternatives, so we fell the tree from the ground or drop large bits – and simply factor the repairs of the damage to the surrounding into the offer.

I had exactly this case a couple of years back:

A customer with a fair-size Norway Spruce, maybe about twenty five meters high, in his garden that had been dead for four years with a marquee below it, and… oh yes, they cut all the roots off on one side under the marquee because they were lifting the foundation of the tent.

Customer: So, Mr. Bridge, can you fell the tree?

Me: Yup, not a problem. Right across your garden. We’ll try to minimize the damage, but I am not promising anything.

Customer, flustered: But… but… 

Me: Look, I am sorry, I’m not trying to be funny here, but you have to understand that there is no way I am sending someone up that tree – or doing it myself, come to that – it would be plain irresponsible and highly dangerous.

Customer: *sigh* Ok, then. Crack on.

So that is what we did. Felled the tree right across his flower beds and shrubs.

Being able to recognize a situation that would bring unacceptably high risks with it and being able to say no to it is not always easy. But it is certainly the right thing to do. Importantly, it is not being rude, rather it displaying professional behavior. Often as not, the customer will recognize and respect this – and if not… so be it. Dead trees are dangerous and represent a risk that is hard to assess and to mitigate – do not attempt to compensate someone else’s negligence by letting yourself be forced to accept risks you would normally walk away from.

Just say “No”.