Should you undergo this training?

Earlier this year, the International Society of Arboriculture (ISA) launched a new credential that is different from certification. It is a qualification, or an assessment-based certificate program, in tree risk assessment. The program, called the Tree Risk Assessment Qualification (TRAQ), consists of a two-and-a-half day training course followed by written and performance-based exams. That is where it differs from certification; a certification is an independent exam, not tied to any specific training, but a qualification provides the training, and then tests on that training.

Before we discuss who should undergo TRAQ training, let’s take a moment to consider another question. In order to know if something will be useful to you, it is helpful to clearly understand what it is. So, what is tree risk assessment? The ISA Best Management Practices – Tree Risk Assessment states: “Tree risk assessment is the systematic process to identify, analyze and evaluate tree risk. … Risk is the combination of the likelihood of an event and the severity of the potential consequences. In the context of trees, risk is the likelihood of a conflict or tree failure occurring and affecting a target and the severity of the associated consequences – personal injury, property damage or disruption of activities.”

Definitions are most useful when they can be put into the context of our experience. Let’s look at some examples of practicing arborists and their connection with tree risk.

Many of us climb trees on a regular basis to provide pruning or removal services, and most of us have heard stories of trees failing (such as at a tie-in point) with a climber in the tree. A few of us have seen it happen to people we know, and some of these events have proven to be fatal.

Inspecting a tree and the surrounding site before entering the tree is the standard practice in the industry that should be followed. Before climbing a tree, we systematically identify and analyze defects in the roots, trunk and scaffold branches. We look for hazards such as power lines, hangers, old cables or other objects in the tree, or hazardous conditions at ground level on the site. If we find codominant stems that have started to split apart from being overstressed by wind or snow loads, we understand that these stems are in the process of failing. We then must judge the likelihood of failure while adding our weight load to these stems. We must also determine what corrective steps to take to reduce the likelihood of failure to protect the public. This is a form of tree risk assessment.

Next let’s consider those arborists who meet with clients and provide recommendations and proposals for performing various tree service work. These arborists are often small business owners or salespeople for larger companies, and they are usually the first arborists on the site to look at a tree. They may be providing a proposal for pruning, but they have a duty to the client to provide good information as to what the tree really needs. They also have an influence on the client’s expectations of what will be done to the tree. The salesperson has a duty of care to recognize if the tree has defects and safety issues and must note any targets that could be damaged. He must then inform the client and, when applicable, the tree crew.

Another group of practicing arborists that have a connection with tree risk are consulting arborists. They are often contracted to perform various levels of assessments. They gather information, sometimes do research, they analyze the data, develop conclusions, they report to the client, provide a tree risk rating, and they make recommendations to mitigate the risk.

The Tree Risk Assessment Manual describes three levels of assessment. Level 1 is the Limited Visual Assessment, which is performed most often by walking or driving by a tree and looking for obvious defects, hazards or problems. Arborists doing sales work should at least be performing this level of assessment when first looking at trees to note any obvious problems or targets that could affect the client or the tree crew that will be performing the work. The salesperson that observes a defect in a tree that, increases the likelihood of failure should point it out to the client and, if appropriate, recommend (and charge for) a higher level of tree risk assessment.

The Level 2 assessment is the Basic Assessment and involves a detailed inspection (from the ground) of the site and the tree, including the root zone, the trunk, the scaffold branches and the upper canopy. This assessment also considers potential targets that may be impacted by tree failure and the possible consequences of failure. Basic Assessments often use simple tools to help gather and clarify information. This is the most common form of assessment performed by arborists regardless of their focus or purpose for assessing a tree.

Tree climbers should be performing a basic inspection of the site and tree, and they should be considering targets related to tree failure and to the pruning work they are about to perform. Because their focus is on performing work they usually will not need to perform all aspects of a Basic Risk Assessment, but they should be utilizing the basic procedures. Every once in a while, a tree climber will discover a defect in a tree that is so questionable (such as a large cavity or decaying roots) that they wisely choose not to climb the tree without further examination and analysis of the defect. This is when a higher level tree assessment should be recommended to the client. (As a side note, things should not reach this point. It puts the climber in an awkward position of having to stop work because of a potentially unsafe situation that was not recognized earlier, but it is the right thing to do.)

On may occasions I have been asked to provide a proposal for pruning a mature tree and noticed a significant defect in the trunk or in the upper canopy that could be affecting the structural integrity of the tree. When this happens, I point it out to the client and recommend that a Basic Assessment be performed before proceeding with any work. If the defect is in the upper canopy, I may recommend an aerial inspection in conjunction with the pruning to be performed. An aerial inspection is one of many possible in-depth inspections that could constitute a Level 3 Advanced Assessment.

The Level 3 Advanced Assessment involves a more thorough examination of specific defects, tree parts or targets. The Advanced Assessment is really an extension of a Basic Assessment and normally takes place with the tree owner’s consent after the Basic Assessment has been completed or in conjunction with the Basic Assessment. The Advanced Assessment is performed to provide additional information on which to base a risk rating and form recommendations for mitigation.

Specialized tools are often used in an advanced assessment. Examples, Inc.lude resistance drilling devices, sonic imaging devices, air tools for excavating roots, etc. The use of these tools requires special training and the ability to interpret the information that is acquired. Advanced Assessments are most often performed by consulting arborists with experience in the use of these specialized tools, as well as an understanding of tree biology and biomechanics.

I recently completed one of the first offerings of the TRAQ training program. It is a packed, intensive program designed to provide participants with basic training of Tree Risk Assessment knowledge and techniques. The program ends with a written exam and an outdoor practical test of assessment techniques. The training program prepared me well for the exams, and I felt confident in my knowledge and abilities after completing it. Those who pass the exams receive a Tree Risk Assessment Qualification that is good for five years. The course manual, workbook and program have been put together with a lot of thought and care. They are well designed and laid out, and the content is thorough and logically organized. Arborists of all levels of tree risk assessment experience will find the content of this training course useful and thought provoking.

Now, going back to the question posed at the beginning of this article: Who should consider undergoing this training? Hopefully by now it is apparent that just about all practicing arborists have a need in their everyday work to perform some aspects or levels of tree risk assessment. A more substantial and thorough understanding of tree risk assessment as provided in the TRAQ course would be useful to just about anyone who works with established trees in an urban setting.

Mark James has been a practicing, climbing arborist for 38 years and has been a Board Certified Master Arborist and a Tree Worker Climbing Specialist Evaluator since 2005. Mark is a Qualified Tree Risk Assessor and a member of American Society of Consulting Arborists.