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Establishing Tripwires: Tools for Managing Risk in "Slow Boil" Environments

Remember the story of the frog and the boiling pot? When dropped into a pot of boiling water, the frog immediately realizes the danger and jumps out. But when in a pot of water where the temperature is slowly increased to the boiling point the frog can’t notice the change and meets an untimely end.

While some risks in the global environment are like the boiling pot – coups, earthquakes, or other sudden, severe occurrences – many are more like the slowly boiling water. Risk increases incrementally making it difficult to perceive changes and adjust mitigation measures accordingly.  Establishing tripwires (also called triggers) in advance helps benchmark change in these types of “slow boil” environments, allowing organizations to adjust risk management systems and make timely, appropriate decisions as the situation develops.

Successful tripwires are:

  • Established in advanced
  • Agreed upon between country team and HQ
  • Defined response (specific or general)
  • Re-evaluated over time

Tripwires can benchmark a specific event or they can reflect more general change in the environment. Likewise the corresponding response can be specific or broad:

Tripwire Response
Voluntary departure of US Embassy dependents and non-emergency personnel


Increase in roadblocks and checkpoints that decrease freedom of movement

Relocate dependents, restrict activities to mission essential functions, cease short term/temporary travel


Convene security management team (country and HQ) to review activities and impact on operations

During the recent Ebola crisis the tripwires below were used by an international NGO to make appropriate and timely risk management decisions in Liberia and Guinea. Crossing any of these tripwires prompted the organization to evaluate whether they could continue activities, maintain international staff presence and keep field offices in the respective capitals open.

  • Increased, unabated spread of virus among population in Monrovia/Conakry.
  • Significant reduction in flights/air departure routes and options.
  • Decreased or restricted freedom of movement within Monrovia/Conakry either by official action (checkpoints, roadblocks, quarantined areas) or by default (concern over exposure results in self imposed movement restrictions).
  • Ongoing or sustained civil disturbances related to/tangential to management of outbreak.
  • Reduction in/compromise of trusted medical facility(ies), (i.e. primary clinic ceases to function, reduces capacity, etc.).

Ultimately, the severe reduction in international flights to Liberia – potentially leaving international staff without a means to depart the country – prompted the NGO to withdraw international staff and reduce operations to all but essential management tasks. In neighboring Guinea, none of the tripwires were crossed and operations continued with strict risk management protocols in place.

And, while primarily designed to facilitate decision making during a deterioration in the risk environment, tripwires can be turned around to evaluate a return to activities after a situation stabilizes. These “reverse tripwires” tie resumption of operations to key improvements in the risk environment. Using the example in the chart above, the return of US Embassy dependents could result in the resumption of short-term travel.

Don’t let your personnel be the frog in the slow boiling pot. Establish triggers or tripwires in advance to make appropriate decisions and manage risk in today’s dynamic global environment.