This is probably one of the single most unpleasant things to read as an outdoor education and risk management professional, but it’s vitally important that any teacher taking a group of students anywhere reads and learns from the extremely tragic experiences that are outlined in any coronial inquest. The lessons learnt from these, must inform our approach to risk management and safety for every program we run.
There are often two dramatically different types of coronial reports. Firstly, the tragic accident, which could not be reasonably foreseen, and despite all efforts to respond, a life is lost. However, more often than not, it’s the second type of report and coronial finding that clearly demonstrates systemic failure and usually a series of events which with each step/poor decision/delay, leads to a fatality.
Whilst both are undeniably tragic, the second leaves families, schools and all those involved destroyed for life. As you read through one of these, the warning signs, deterioration of conditions and clear evidence that there’s a problem is usually abundantly clear. Whilst many would say it’s easy to see that in the rear-view mirror, which I agree is entirely true, as hindsight is very powerful, but often the obvious warning signs are there. Thus, understanding your environment, your group and the risks involved in what you’re doing, should have already provided you with enough insight to take the action needed to prevent a situation deteriorating into a critical or fatal situation.
What’s vitally important from this is the need for situational awareness. Instructors and teachers need to be aware of a range of factors (which are usually outlined in a risk assessment) and ensure they’re proactively considered and managed. Reading coronial reports is a horrible, but important part of that skills development for being aware of conditions and situations which have led to irreversible and tragic consequences.
I found myself in one such situation a number of years ago. We were out hiking west of Nowra and heading in towards Kangaroo Valley. It was a bright sunny and hot afternoon in February and a massive, angry storm rolled in faster than crazed shoe shoppers on Boxing Day. We were suddenly trapped on a ridge with pelting rain, lightning striking all around us and drilling the ground with no pause between the lightning and the deafening concussion of the thunder. Strike after strike after strike, it pinned us down. Perched on our packs in the ‘lightning position’ we could do nothing else other than stay clear of trees and wait out the storm. However, the storm persisted and hour after hour we had no option but to stay put.
Suddenly there was a break in the storm and the other group leader had the idea that we should keep going despite the conditions around us. We were heading towards a river which needed to be crossed to get to the camp site. We had saturated gortexes and some students were showing early signs of hyperthermia. It was not a good idea to press on, but full of bravado and telling the group that if we didn’t, the other group would think we were weak, a nauseating feeling hit me. This didn’t feel right. We had too many factors at play. The extreme weather, the equipment failure and the condition of the students. When something feels wrong, then you must act immediately. It’s not a matter of waiting to see what happens. Stop, regroup, bring in other resources and respond before things spiral out of control.
This is the critical tipping point of any coronial inquest. You can often determine the point of no return where the decision to continue inevitably led to the fatality and often it’s based upon poor thoughtless decision making, where there is plenty of evidence that it’s time to stop, regroup and rethink everything. Thankfully, the nauseating feeling on the mentioned trip, was telling me things are deteriorating and we need to change tactics. We waited until the main storm passed, went and grabbed the 4WD and then moved the group to an alternate campsite. Soon after setting up we had a fire going and everyone had something warm to drink.
Whilst it’s painful and distressing to read coronial inquests, it’s vitally important that you do as part of your ongoing risk management training and professional development. Understanding the experiences of others and the tragedies of the past can help us to make better decisions and ensure the safety of our groups into the future. It’s those lessons learned, that are powerful and stark reminders that risk management must be a living, breathing approach to running any program and not just a document which is dusted off when it’s subpoenaed by the coroner.
As part of your on going risk management, it’s well worth regularly reviewing and workshopping coronial reports with your team to ensure the situational awareness and those tipping points are at the forefront of everyone’s minds every time they’re out with a group to ensure everyone has a safe, challenging and enjoyable experience.
Free time in the outdoors is challenging. As an experienced outdoor ed teacher other than lightning, high winds and trees falling over, free time is always my biggest concern. “Why’s that?” you ask. “Isn’t this just quiet down time?”
No!!!! Who told you that? It’s actually the causation of the majority of injuries on outdoor programs. “What?” I hear parents scream in the distance. Yes, that’s true, it’s not the activities such as abseiling, or high ropes which have a very high level of perceived risk that are the problem and causation of many injuries. It’s the sitting around doing nothing at outdoor centres which leads to many of the injuries we see in outdoor programs.
The Budawang and Etrema Wilderness areas are some of the most rugged and challenging areas in which to hike in NSW. Having led many groups through both these wilderness areas over the years, filled with snakes, hippies, crazed possums and often a shortage of access to fresh water and evacuation routes, the thought of simply hanging around on an outdoor campus with a group of students for free time, is more worrying than anything I ever could have and did encounter in those tough, unforgiving wilderness areas.
In recent years, I’ve noticed a changing phenomenon. Kids are really rubbish at doing free time, especially when there’s no structured activity going on. Most children’s lives, especially with two working parents, have become so over-structured that the idea that they might have to entertain themselves or find happiness in quiet time is something completely foreign. This is a real problem for our over-stimulated children, who on camp generally don’t have the option of pulling out their phone to play pointless addictive and life-wasting games to stave off the threat of a lack of over-stimulation and having to socialise in a meaningful way.
Unfortunately, what happens as a result of children who are not used to free-time being given lots of free time, is that stupid and poorly thought out games start. These can often result in running around dangerously in areas with which they’re unfamiliar and not always well-supervised in. The other potential negative scenario is that to cure their boredom, they look for other unhealthy things to do, such as picking on each other in unpleasant ways. It’s no surprise that the majority of outdoor education injuries occur during this time.
There’s a false sense of security which goes with being in a hard-top cabin style outdoor ed location. The idea is that it’s not really that risky compared with the activities that were being done during the day. How can you compare that high ropes course which scared the life out of everyone, with sitting around talking or more likely running around madly. Sometimes, teachers can think that once the activities are over, then it’s also their own ‘free time,’ so they can relax a little. Sadly I’ve seen far too much of this over the years and ultimately, if you’re on duty and sitting on the lounge inside a building where you can’t see any children and thinking you’re providing suitable supervision and an effective duty of care, then you’re a moron and should not be teaching. If you’re reading this blog, I would suggest that’s not you, but I’ve seen it first hand and it’s unsurprising the majority of injuries on outdoor programs happen during free time at outdoor centres.
How do we reduce the incidence of injuries when we know kids are finding it increasingly difficult to do free-time? Firstly, don’t employ idiots! This is a good basis upon which to start. However, if you’re lucky enough to have a good staff, as part of your pre-program safety briefing, highlight this as a key risk that you need everyone to look out for. Give a couple of examples if you’ve seen things as I have of what can and does happen when supervision becomes laxed, or a false sense of security is created by the differential between an activity such as abseiling and hanging around dorms.
However, one huge opportunity is to run some structured games during this free time. Sure, it means teachers have to run another activity, but that’s far preferable to the trip to hospital and the awkward phone calls back to home and school to explain what happened and why there’s a student in hospital after ‘free-time’ injury. To be honest, I’ve had to make a lot of phone calls over the years in regards to injuries, but the most awkward and difficult ones to deal with are the free-time ones, because they’re really hard to explain the reasons as to why they happened. A fall from a mountain bike which caused a broken wrist is far easier to explain and manage and has less blow back, than trying to explain why a shoulder was dislocated inside a dormitory.
The reality is that children do find free-time increasingly difficult due to the over-stimulation and over scheduling of their lives. Whilst it would be great to think they can have some much needed free-time, this has often proven to be some of the most risky periods of time during outdoor ed programs where the most injuries occur. The best option is to ease students into the idea of free-time by structuring some initiative games, group activities, or light exercise during these times, rather than just ‘free-time.’ As a result, you’ll spend less time patching kids up, going to hospital and having awkward conversations.
Having written about two major human risk factors involved with any outdoor program, the expert blind spot and the idiot blind spot, I thought it worth talking more about risk management training.
Despite the attention to risk management forms, this is one area which is seriously lacking in schools today and is unlikely to ever be covered by any education degree. However, as experiential education and outside of classroom learning expands, the need for risk management training will become critical to any uni course. However, this doesn’t mean that it will find its way into the curriculum at any point.
Unless you’re an outdoor ed person, for most teachers the first time they encounter risk management is when they’re taking a group of students away for the very first time. With puzzled looks, they ask someone else what to do. The equally uncertain colleague says something like, “Oh! I’ve gotta fill in a bunch of paperwork.”
It’s more often than not the blind leading the blind and one poor practice is followed by another, with the end result being that people think they’re doing the right thing, when they’re not even aware of most risks involved in a program, nor how to eliminate, mitigate or accept the risks.
Without any training, a school or organisation can stumble through, reliant mainly on luck for the success of their programs. This is never a good approach, since unless you’re a Marvel superhero, luck tends not to be a terribly effective way of managing risk. Instead, you need to build systems that are reliable, trackable and continuously reviewed. Risk management is a culture within your organisation and not a stand alone document that gathers dust until the lawyers and coroner want to take a look. Without a culture of risk management, then your organisation is leaving itself open to poor planning and potential operational disasters.
Swift Water Rescue Training
How do you avoid this? As with everything else you want to improve in, do some training! Learn to what risks you’re exposing staff and students. Learn how to effectively plan and implement good risk management systems and build a culture of risk managers. Also learn how to respond when things don’t go to plan. I’ve seen far too many teachers over the years start to fall apart when things don’t go to plan. Instead, train and practice for the worst case scenarios, to ensure you’re ready to deal with any scenario.
The more teachers take students outside the classroom, the more critical it is to be trained in proper risk management. You can’t rely on a third party provider to do everything. Despite what many people may think, you can’t subcontract your risk out to someone else. Therefore, to protect you, your staff and students, get trained in risk management, which incidentally our partner company Xcursion runs. Everything from basic risk management for new staff, to senior management programs to organisation-wide training can and should be covered. Pleading ignorance is no defence in court, so it’s not worth the risk of not understanding risk management.
As soon as you read the title of this article, you either thought ‘hmmm how interesting’, or ‘wow this is going to be boring…’
One of my frustrations as an outdoor ed teacher and director has always been the quality and timelines of incident reports. They’re often too brief, fail to mention important details and arrive days after the event through a great deal of chasing! Sound familiar?
This comes down to a few things, which include the level of training and experience staff have had in responding to incidents and injuries, the culture within the organisation and the type of reporting methodology being used.
Training is an interesting one, as first aid training doesn’t usually cover the how and why you should do an incident report. Some of them do, but often it’s fairly basic training to call emergency services and let them handle things from there. However, if you’re responsible for students, you’d know that’s quite impossible from a practical point of view. More often than not, it’s not even a case of calling emergency services. It’s more about handling the situation at hand yourself. Therefore, some level of training is needed around what you should be putting in a report. Details such as time, location, circumstances, supervision, weather and others involved all become important to the equation. So if you haven’t read up or done anything around reporting, it’s definitely time to do that.
The second area is culture. Is there an expectation that you need to report? If not, I’d be concerned about the organisation. Legally, in Australia and most likely all other counties, you need to report any injuries or incidents as you have a duty of care within your organisation. Having said that, I’ve worked for places in the past that had a very casual approach to this, until something happened. Then it was a major drama, chasing reports and asking all the wrong questions way after the fact. Hence there needs to be a culture of reporting. Even if something were a near-miss. where no injury occurred, but could have been potentially catastrophic, you need to report it! I can’t stress this enough. There’s so much value that can be gained by reviewing near misses and incidents to develop better systems and practices for your organisation.
The last area is methodology. The harder it is for staff to do an incident report, the less likely you are to get one. Interestingly enough, this occurs at all levels of an organisation and just because someone is a manager, doesn’t mean they’re more likely to report. In fact, it’s the opposite. They’re less likely to report incidents which occur, maybe because they think ‘they’re in charge’ and don’t need to, or more likely, they address the issue and end up too busy with other things and forget about it. When nobody is chasing them the same way they chase others, then you can see why there’s an increased likelihood they won’t report something. This then feeds straight back into the cultural issue and has an overall negative impact on the organisation and its risk and reporting profile. This can end up with things just ‘slipping through the cracks’ to the point that the organisation suffers a major incident.
So basically from that, make it easy for yourself and everyone in the organisation to do a report. It was this arduous and cumbersome reporting process at one school I worked for which led me to designing and building the Xcursion platform. Basically, I had to solve my own problem to try and help what was in my opinion a dangerous and dysfunctional organisation get up to speed with its reporting. As a result, teachers could then have fast and secure access to student info and complete an incident report on their mobile which was sent back to school as soon as they hit the complete button.
Making this process easy for staff, not only massively improved the speed of reporting, but it steeled teachers through exactly what they needed to report. Consequently, this made a huge difference to the organisation’s attention to incident and injury reporting and helped to start building the culture of risk management which was so desperately needed.
Ask yourself, ‘How does your organisation look in terms of incident reporting? Is it easy and timely to do, or is it a time consuming pain? Is there an expectation that everyone reports incidents and near misses alike? Does everyone feel confident in the training they have to identify, manage and report on incidents as they happen?’
If you’re not confident of your response, then maybe it’s time for some staff training and new systems to be put in place to ensure that you are.
One of the biggest problems in any outdoor program is the blindness of experts. They’re generally people who are experts in their specific field or activity and become over-confident and blind to situations in which risk can be quite dangerous to themselves and others. However, I’m not going to be covering that right now. Instead I’d like to coin the term, ‘The Idiot Blindspot!’ What happens when inexperienced and incompetent people think they know what they’re doing when they truly don’t?
The idiot blindspot is a dangerous place in which to be operating, as there’s actually no consideration of risk at all. It’s merely given lip service and no real implementation of any considerations about risk are thought about nor are there any systems in place to manage risks. These are the people you want to avoid like they plague. They are your classic copy and paste crew who think that a risk management document is what risk management is about and once you have that document (copied and pasted from someone else), that whatever you do after that is ok.
The ‘whatever you do after that is ok’ approach can be a strange and nerve wracking experience for someone who is able to read situations. Sadly, if unaddressed, the idiots involved tend to end up in front of coroners having caused life-shattering damage to those they should have been protecting. They will then make excuses for their behaviour and lack of judgment.
I’ve experienced a few idiots over the years and despite going to great lengths to explain the reasons why we should or should not do something, they would invariably not see reason. In fact, they would get quite defensive and hostile at the suggestion that what they were considering was perhaps not that well thought out.
Unfortunately, I can think of a number of occasions that this has happened. One was a rafting exercise where the activity was being conducted in a tidal creek, which had a sucky mud base and was murky to the point that you couldn’t see 10cm below the surface. What better way to run a raft building exercise than to have students testing their make-shift crafts in this environment with no life jackets on. But wait, there’s more! Not only were there no personal flotation devices being used, the activity spontaneously changed into students wrestling with each other on the makeshift rafts attempting to throw each other off into the murky water. For someone with at least half a brain, you could reasonably foresee problems with this activity. Sadly, the idiots running it could not.
“Why didn’t you stop the activity?” I hear you shouting in disbelief!!! Well, I wasn’t actually there. The idiots had filmed all of this and could be heard encouraging the wrestling on the dodgy rafts. I already had my doubts about these members of staff, and now here we were seeing their stupidity in full-flight. Operating your risk management based upon pure luck is not something that should ever be done. Nor is letting an idiot run an activity such as this, with no regard for even the most basic notions of student safety. The difficulty in this situation was that the person running the activity was my boss, which only added to the dangerous nature of the organisation’s idiot blindspot.
On a number of different occasions, I’ve found myself in a bizarre arguments over weather warnings, equipment usage and group dynamics, all of which materially impact on safety. However, there’s a difference between a robust discussion with experienced and knowledgable colleagues versus complete idiots, especially when the complete idiots think they’re amazing and know what they’re doing. No advice is better than any advice from someone who knows nothing about risk management. A very dangerous mix, which if left unaddressed has the potential to put you in front of the coroner. Sadly, it’s usually the death of an innocent child that the coroner is investigating and not the idiot whose lack of judgment and understanding led to the accident.
If your organisation has people like this in it, get rid of them as fast as possible. They’re not going to benefit from any sort of professional development or training, as they completely lack the understanding and ability to understand risk and how to be situationally aware. It’s often not until an activity or expedition is in motion that risks (which were copied and pasted on that dusty document) become apparent. Being able to read situations is critical to good risk management and ensuring that all your activities and programs run well and are beneficial to everyone involved.
Before you let any staff loose on programs with any level of risk, then they’re well trained and are mentored along the way. It does take time and experience to develop situational awareness. However, once you’ve detected the idiots, you know they have to go. You don’t need the idiots. They contribute nothing other than red flags and an immense danger to you and everyone around you and the faster you can understand their blindness to risk and take them out of the mix, the better off your organisation will be.
For the adventurous rock climber, Mount Arapiles in Tooan State Park Victoria is an absolute must! This is a world class climbing spot and regarded as the best in Australia, attracting locals and international climbers alike. Four hours North West of Melbourne, the mountain range suddenly rises up out of the near dead-flat Wimmera plains, a stunning sight in itself, but wait till you get to the top!
The nearest regional centre to the Arapiles, is Horsham. Head west from there on the Wimmera Highway until you get to the small township of Natimuk. There’s a really good general store there for some basic last minute supplies. From there, you can’t miss the mountain range. It’s dramatic, stunning and rises up out of the Wimmera plains to dominate the landscape.
There are over 2,500 different routes to climb on this mountain, which provides a massive range of options for the beginner, right through to the advanced lead climber. Even though you’re bound to find other climbers around, there’s plenty of options from which to choose.
To get started, there’s a number of small, short climbs with easy road access and simple to setup top belays without having to lead climb up. These are perfect for the whole family, training the kids, or just bouldering to improve your own technique.
Further in, the mountain opens up into a massive collection of climbing routes for all skill levels and abilities. There’s an abundance of multi-pitch lead climbs up challenging rock faces, chimneys and stand-alone rock pillars. For less experienced climbers, guided climbs are available from the local area. For the experts, grab yourself a route map and get climbing!
The views from the top are stunning. The mountain is a stand-alone feature on the landscape, so all around you it drops down to the beautiful agricultural plains of Western Victoria as far as the eye can see.
There’s way too much to do here for just one day, so plan to make a trip of it. If you want to stay onsite, you must book camping in advance via the Parks Victoria Website. The camp ground has a great international atmosphere, with people from all over the world hanging out and taking on the variety of challenging rock faces. Whilst this is an all year round location, Summer here does get really hot, so from a risk point of view just keep that in mind.
If you love climbing, then this is by far the best place to do it in Australia!
• Sleeping Bags
• Sleeping Mat
• Gummy Bears (because you just can’t go wrong with them)
• Camping Stove
• Firewood (You're not allowed to collect wood from the site.)
• Insect Repellent
• Clothes for hot midday and cold nights
• Climbing Gear (helmet, ropes, harness, devices, shoes)
• First Aid Kit
There’s always a lot to think about when preparing for an outdoor ed camp. Assuming you know where you’re going and what you’re doing sorted, then it’s time to prepare the finer details.
For most teachers, this is where it can become overwhelming. Often the feeling is, “I want to run an enjoyable and safe trip… but where do I start?”
The first thing to do is develop your risk management plan. Many other things will simply fall into place once this is done. Although the bane of many teachers’ existence, a good risk management plan can save you considerable time and effort down the line.
When building your plan, look at your daily routine and work out what the key risks are for each activity and how you will accept, eliminate or mitigate these risks. You’ll need to consider things such as time of year (season), weather, temperatures, location and emergency exit points. Add to this the specific risks for each activity in those locations at that time of the year and you’ll start to build a picture of what your key risks are and how you’re going to address them.
With your risk management strategy created, remember, this is a living document not a copy and paste job which just makes up part of the ‘annoying paperwork.’ All staff need to be aware of risks and mitigation strategies and be prepared to react and respond if and when it’s needed.
The next step is to sort permission notes, get updated medicals and provide a student packing list with all the items they need to bring (and things they shouldn’t). Have a detailed plan ready to go before you send this out to parents. You’re bound to get lots of questions so the more detailed the itinerary you can provide upfront, the better.
For the equipment list, clearly specify quantity and quality of what’s required. Whilst I know some parents might not be able to supply this, as a matter of safety, it’s important that you’re able to cater for any shortfall. One of the most important pieces of equipment is a set of thermals. Even in warmer months, it’s good safety practice to carry some thermals in case of emergency and if you’re running an autumn or winter camp, it’s essential that all students have a set. The reason being (not just to support our great wool industry), hypothermia is always a significant environmental risk due to wet and windy conditions in Australia.
With permissions notes, medicals and gear all sorted, it’s time to brief everyone! This is often overlooked, but it’s vitally important to run a pre-camp briefing for staff and students. This goes back to pro-active risk management. Set the scene, set the expectations and build the excitement for camp. After all, you’ve just spent weeks preparing something very special it’s now time to tell everyone about it! Showing images from a previous camp and location on a map, is a great way to put into perspective some of the experiences they’re about to have.
With all this done, it’s down to the last items and you’re ready to go! First Aid kits, spare Asthma Puffer, spare EpiPen, any medications, groups lists, medical summaries, food and you’re good to go! By the way… did anyone book the buses?
To really understand how incompetent some people are when it comes to reporting incidents, you need only look at my old school. Wait, no… not the one of which you’re thinking! Let’s go back further to when I was in a Government high school myself.
It was the 90s, an almost lost decade when the great fashion styles of the 80s were now dead and replaced with slightly more conservative hair cuts and mobile phones that came in a bag. Yes that’s right, A mobile didn’t fit in your pocket. It came in its own bag. They were enormous! I remember that everyone thought that people who carried their own bag phone around, must have been either super important, or a complete tosser! In reality, it was the latter, but I digress.
Whilst I prefer not to talk about my high school experience, because it could lead to far too many expletives being used in every sentence, the remarkable thing about life is the fact that we can learn some great lessons from complete idiots. Just take a look at the Darwin Awards, which is a great testament to this fact. Sadly, I don’t have another contender for the Darwin Awards on this occasion. However, there’s no shortage of idiots involved, so for those of you involved in risk management, this is what not to do when your school bus gets hit by a semi-trailer.
Now it wouldn’t be fair to talk about the day trip to Narrabri without putting it into some sort of context. Why were we travelling two hours from Tamworth in Northern NSW to Narrabri just to have an argument?
For me, this was one of the most exciting days of the year. It was the regional debating championships and for one, it had me out of school for the day, which was always preferable. More importantly, it was one of the best debating competitions around. Sadly, the English staff who were supposedly running debating, didn’t share this view. Since it wasn’t Rugby League, the rest of the school had a dim view of it as well. The only time I’d actually been to Narrabri for the championship was two years before when I was in Year 7 and we did very well, getting into the finals but coming runner up at the end of the day. The next year however, one of the students slept in, and so rather than leaving one student behind, the stupid teacher waited and did nothing for an hour and a half, until the student got on the bus. We arrived massively late and forfeited every single debate. Yet another stellar moment for the English Department.
However, I’ll leave it at the fact that the English Department and I did not get along. There was some unpleasantness. I remember in Year 12, I was excluded from the debating team for apparently being too argumentative… but that’s a much longer story for another time!
Back to the matter at hand. I was thrilled to be heading off to Narrabri for the day of debating. It was a knock out impromptu debating competition, which I loved and given the previous year’s mess, I was eagerly anticipating getting there and at least competing in the first round!
Despite the fact that it had been raining overnight and drizzling that morning, all was going well. I was picked up on time in town, which was a pleasant surprise. Jumping on the bus, I found a seat right in the middle of the mini-bus on the driver’s side. It was on the outskirts of Tamworth when I first noticed the bus seemed to be all over the road. It was raining more heavily and the driver, one of the illustrious English teachers, had managed to slip the bus off the road twice into the soft verge at the side of the bitumen. On the second slip I banged my knee hard into the seat in front of me. “What an idiot,” I thought. (I was thinking worse than idiot… but I’m keeping this PG). This year we were in no hurry, but the teacher seemed hell-bent on racing the whole way there.
Another twenty minutes on and with a few more bumpy shunts all over the road, we were close to Gunnedah and approaching a narrow bridge over the Mooki River. It was raining. We seemed to be speeding in a bus that had already slipped off the road a number of times and now were approaching the narrow wooden Mooki Bridge. I glanced up to see a semi-trailer heading in our direction. It was half way over the bridge. Then everything suddenly slowed down.
I don’t remember hearing the screech of the wheels, but at some point the teacher had slammed on the brakes, the wheels had locked up and the bus spun around in slow motion 90 degrees. We were now sliding sideways straight along the road, completely out of control. Out my window, a massive bull-bar- covered grill was coming straight for me. Nothing profound was going through my mind as I grabbed to push my back hard into my seat and braced myself against the seat in front. There were no seat belts and we were about to be T- boned in the middle of the bus.
It was the quick thinking of the truck driver who saved us that day. As I watched helplessly from my seat, the massive bull-bar came closer and closer. Suddenly the rig of the semi-trailer veered sharply left. It’s wheels shifted and rumbled off the side of the road. The driver was now trying to turn hard left and the bull bar was facing slightly away from me, but with the truck close to us now and with nowhere left to go, I held my breath. The bus was deathly silent.
The most frightful, deafening sound of crunching metal smashed the silence. The semi had clipped the rear of the mini bus. The side windows shattered. Glass sprayed slowly through the air like a thousand diamonds hovering slightly, as the bus spun violently, before arcing to the floor. Glancing back, I saw the semi-trailer roll onto its side and into a ditch next to the road. We came to an abrupt stop. I sat there stunned as everything seemed to return back to normal speed. “I’ve got to get off the bus,” I thought. “What if it explodes?”
With my ears ringing, I could now hear screaming and shouting throughout the bus. All I could think of was what if another truck comes along and hits us? I scrambled off the bus. It sat awkwardly, still halfway across the road. The massive semi-trailer lay motionless.
Despite our teacher being a massive tosser, unfortunately he didn’t have an enormous bag phone, so we had to call emergency services 90s style!!
I ran across the old narrow wooden bridge to the other side. Sure enough, another truck was picking up speed as it headed out of town. Standing in the middle of the road I flagged him down. I can’t remember what I said, or even if it made any sense, but with wreckage strewn all over the road ahead, it was fairly obvious we needed help. The truck driver got on the CB radio and soon we could hear the sounds and see the flashing lights of the ambulance and police racing towards us.
A couple of students were still on the bus. The teacher had run off to the other vehicle and not bothered to check on any of us, despite the common sense rule of check your students! Given the fact he should have owned a bag phone, this wasn’t surprising in any way. As in every movie climax after the life or death conflict has been resolved, the flashing lights and uniforms around us seemed to create a sense of calm. I think I was too stunned and possibly concussed at this point to really be feeling anything. Although, I remember thinking, “We’re going to be late for the debate again!”
A couple of students and the truck driver, who in his superb efforts to save us had broken his leg, were loaded into ambulances and rushed off to hospital. We were loaded back on the bus which still could be moved and driven to hospital. To say I was reluctant to board the bus was an understatement, especially with that guy at the wheel, who in my opinion was completely responsible for everything that had just happened. However, the police determined the bus could be driven only about 4 km to Gunnedah Hospital.
We sat around and waited to be seen in hospital. One after another, a doctor checked us. My knee was sore and I felt exhausted. Otherwise, I was fine. For us, the ordeal was pretty much over, but for everyone else it had only just begun!
Thanks to modern forms of communication at that time (the CB radio), which could be easily listened into by anyone, the 8.30am local ABC radio news had already broadcast the accident informing all the northwest that “a bus from a Tamworth school had crashed.”
Panic arose for some primary school parents whose children had left that morning for Canberra. The 9am news stated, “The bus was not from Oxley Vale School.”
The phones at our school, those ones that plug into the wall, went into meltdown, as only a tiny bit of information was released on the radio. By 11am, the school was named. It didn’t say that it was the debating team, a significant point by which most parents would have known it didn’t involve their son. Everyone, however, had assumed it was a football team or some other excursion and thus many parents were trying to ring one phone number all at once. The parents with children in the debating team had also found out and couldn’t contact the school due to the phones being engaged.
If there’s one thing you should do in the event of a critical incident, it’s inform the parents of those involved as soon as you can! Release a detailed statement to the rest of the school community based on clear facts and in line with the needs of the community. Failing to do so, creates more problems. It creates panic and uncertainty and parents will fill in all the blanks you’ve left for them with their imagination. Soon parent imagination can turn into pseudo facts and you will have an even bigger mess on your hands. It’s hard to respond to that and much harder from which to recover.
Rather than using another phone line to call the parents of the students who were involved, the school did nothing. Yes, that’s right! Nothing at all! The hopeless response to this major incident is probably one of the reasons why I believe risk and incident management is so important. Seeing people do something so badly, usually prompts me to do the opposite and make sure it’s done properly.
A teacher at the school told my older brothers and gave them the tiny bit of information that was heard on the radio. One brother rang our mother at her work with the words, “The bus has crashed, but David is all right.” She in turn rang our father at his work and he kept dialling the school number to see if he should drive to Gunnedah or where.
The school sent a teacher in another bus to come and pick everyone up from Gunnedah Hospital. There wasn’t anything wrong with this in itself. We were collected at the hospital, driven back to Tamworth and dropped off either at or near home or at a parent’s work with no meet and greet to the parents, nor any sort of handover. I was the only student with immediate parent contact. One boy was set down in town and had to wait about three hours for his regular school bus to take him home to Manilla.
A number of students were dropped off at empty houses. After almost being killed in a horrible collision with a truck, the teacher somehow thought that dropping shaken teenagers off at an empty house was an appropriate thing to do! Even the most useless and incompetent teacher should have known better than that! Perhaps the teacher who picked us up should have been carrying two bag phones. As he was head of welfare for the school, it’s rather ironic that he appeared to know nothing about student welfare, but again that’s my opinion and a much longer story for another time in regards to what I believe was his incompetence and inability to fulfil an important role.
The idea that it was ok to drop students off at home when nobody was there after a traumatic road collision was stupid even for the 1990s. I remember being dropped off at Tamworth West Primary School where my mother was teaching her Year 4 class. I wandered in, still possibly concussed and remember lying down somewhere in the classroom and falling asleep. Mum sensibly refused to take me home in her lunch break.
What should have happened? All students should have been driven back to school. No one should have been left alone. Day boys could have been left under Matron’s watchful eye, until their parents arrived to collect them. Boarders could have been supervised by Matron and/or their dormitory master.
From an incident response and management point of view, the lack of communication was pathetic. It might have been a lack of training, a lack of response planning, or just the fact that I went to a school that appeared to be run ineffectively. The bottom line was that there was no plan in place if something went wrong. It was evident that everyone was simply making things up as they went.
Whilst critical incidents are fluid in nature and you may need to respond in an inter-active way to contain the initial situation, there is absolutely no reason why any school or organisation can’t have clear actionable steps in place to be able to respond quickly and effectively to a major incident. It’s vital that you inform parents and if needed, draw on resources in the wider community, such as local radio.
Over the past 25 years, at no time did anyone from the school contact my parents to let them know what happened! At no point was the incident ever debriefed! At no point did anyone ask about the debating! Two years in a row, we’d forfeited the most awesome competition in the region and to this date, the school still hasn’t officially told anyone that the bus crash actually occurred.
The Principal suddenly left the school and the questions about the crash, that parents asked at the P & C meeting, were unanswered.
Despite all of this, I learnt some very important lessons as to what not to do in a situation like this. One thing it highlights though, is the fact that for all the carry on I’ve seen over the years from people who don’t understand risk management and incident management, the fact remains, being on the road with students is one of the highest risk factors possible.
Driving to the conditions, avoiding peak periods of traffic and having a fatigue management policy and procedure in place is vital to reduce this transport risk that’s part of every trip away from school.
Let’s put this back in context. We were going to a debating competition!!! Sounds very low risk and not even worth doing a risk assessment on, yet had the truck driver not reacted the way he did, our bus would have been cut in two and a few more sun-bleached crosses would have stood scattered at the side of the road, lovingly surrounded by flowers, tended only, in decreasing frequency, by the broken families who were never told what really happened that day.
After talking about how awesome Twisted Sister were, I might have got you excited about the classic Chumbawamba song Tubthumping! Such a great song, but again another one-hit wonder that now occasionally finds its way to be played at awkward school reunions and trivia nights. However, as interesting as random bands are and as pointless as school reunions are, I am not going to talk about either. Instead, let’s talk head injuries!
Whilst for many people, a head injury might be preferable to going to their school reunion, I don’t want to seem blasé about one of the most significant issues with which we have to deal as teachers, coaches and outdoor instructors.
Concussions are what I would describe as a hidden injury. Whilst sometimes it’s extremely obvious that someone has suffered a concussion, when they’re struggling to remember what you said to them 30 seconds ago, there are also times where the injury goes quite unnoticed. Sometimes, after a hit to the head or a massive body collision, a proper assessment isn’t done and the student continues to play on.
One of the biggest problems with concussions, from a first aid point of view, is that the signs and symptoms are not blatantly obvious. If for example someone breaks an arm, especially if it’s a protruding injury, you can see it’s broken from satellite imagery. If it’s graze or laceration, there’s usually lots of blood and so it’s time to glove up and stop that bleeding. There is a reason why people say “bleedingly obvious,” and you’ll understand exactly what they mean, if you’ve treated someone with an open wound, let alone someone who’s taken a dive in a bed of oysters… but that’s a story for another time.
Head injuries and concussions however, that don’t involve lots of bleeding, aren’t always so obvious and nor is the recovery process. When you’ve broken that arm at right angles and passers by with no first aid training feel nauseated just looking at it, it’s obvious you need to get that looked at by a doctor. The process is quite clear from now on in. You go to the hospital, the triage nurse looks at you and goes ‘Oh woah! That’s broken!’ The old lady you sit down next to in the waiting room goes ‘Oh woah! That’s broken!’ and finally after a 6 hour wait in emergency, the doctor said ‘Oh woah! That’s broken, but we’d better get it X-rayed just to be sure!’
However, with head injuries, it’s not so clear cut. Because we can’t see an obvious trauma, we can often risk not even considering that an injury has occurred. The student after all got back up and is playing again. The student might not feel too bad, just a little dazed… but can ‘walk it off’. Unfortunately, inside the student’s head, the brain has just been bounced around and is suffering the effects of a mild concussion. If however, a student has a major concussion, it’s far easier to notice and remove the student from the field or activity. Thankfully, our awareness of and attention to major concussions has improved dramatically in recent years. However, it’s the mild concussions that worry me, as they can remain hidden for an extended period of time.
When someone suffers a concussion, they should seek medical advice and have a clear recovery plan laid out for them. However, with a mild concussion, medical advice is not always sought and the student doesn’t rest and recover, but instead, goes to the next training session increasing the risk of more significant trauma and then onto the next game, once again at increased risk. A concussion on top of another concussion, on top of another one can have a massive multiplier effect and lead to further damage to the brain being caused. Traumatic brain injury and/or CTE (Chronic Traumatic Encephalopathy) can result.
As I’m not a doctor, and there’s far better medical information and advice on the specifics around TBI and CTE I won’t go into all the details here. But as a first teacher, coach or instructor and often the first responder, we should be ensuring we are baseline testing our students prior to commencing high risk activists such as extreme sports and contact sports. We should be mandating helmets or head gear wherever possible and also remaining situationally aware throughout the activity or game looking for big hits to the body or head that might result in the mild concussion that can be so easily overlooked as it’s not bleedingly obvious to the old lady in the emergency department. It’s easy to test for a concussion, but much much harder to deal with the fallout if you don’t.
As educators, we want to challenge our students and help them get the most out of sports, the outdoors and every other opportunity that school affords them. We want them to out-live us and be forced to go to those awkward school reunions, so they can pretend to be far more successful than all the people they hated at school and claim they invented the ‘Post It Note’ or are now an internet Billionaire having invented ‘Fake Block’. Making our students suffer awkward conversations at school reunions to which we don’t have to go, is good! However, letting them suffer from a traumatic brain injury or CTE from multiple concussions when we can so easily check with something like the International Diagnostic tool, is unacceptable.
We do have a very high duty of care for our students and being aware of the risks involved in concussions and also how we can effectively respond and manage them, is vital for us as teachers, coaches and instructors. If you haven’t done so already, do some research, go to a seminar or listen to a podcast on this. The more we understand about concussions, the more we can do to recognise and treat them as we would any other traumatic injury.
For more clinic information speak with your doctor and a few useful resources below:
Malcolm Gladwell – Revisionist History Podcast
Pocket Concussion Recognition Tool - updated 2017
A while ago I wrote about finding myself outside my comfort zone on a reccie trip with some colleagues. We were white water canoeing, something I’d never done before. It was something I found quite challenging, but a rewarding learning experience.
Learning new skills in outdoor education is a great way to keep things interesting and expand your skill set. However, what happens with something you’re very experienced in? Should you be practising it outside of work? Is what you do on the job enough practice for something at which you’re good?
Snow skiing is something I’ve done since I was 5 years old and an industry I’ve worked in for around 7 years. In terms of outdoor skills, I can safely say, snow skiing is my strongest one. However, despite this experience, I still have plenty to learn and so much more upon which to improve. However, it’s not until your skills are actually put to the test, that you realise just how much more there is to learn and why it’s so important to continually up-skill.
Recently I spent a couple of weeks overseas skiing, as it’s been a number of years since I’ve done an entire season of work at the snow. When doing seasons, you have the time to truly build your skill-set and challenge yourself in so many different ways. However, it’s surprising how quickly you lose some of your finer skills when the season’s over.
Getting back on skis for the first time in a year is always an interesting experience. I love the sound of the boot clicking into the binding, fixing my helmet and lowering my goggles ready to jump on the lift. However, despite having skied many double black diamond runs over the years, I’m not going to head for the highest peak and fang it down the most hectic run as fast as I can, launching off everything I can find. No, that would be idiotic. Instead, I like to find a nice green or blue trail to run up and down to warm up and get a feel for everything again. I’ll probably spend an entire day doing this.
When I’ve had a chance to get my balance back and regain the feel for my skis, I’m ready to start rebuilding my deteriorated skill set that time has eroded. With any outdoor skill, you’ll reach a point where you’re highly competent and things will come back to you quickly. However, without practice, similar to physical fitness, all these hard skills, deteriorate over time. For an instructor, this deterioration is not good and can come from both lack of practice, or only operating at a much lower level of intensity.
If for example I was with a group skiing day in and day out, as is often the case for experienced instructors of any outdoor activity, I might just be cruising all the time on green or blue runs to match the level of ability of the group. However, cruising can lead to complacency and dull your senses to the wider challenges and risks of the activity that you’re leading. To avoid complacency, often called an expert blind spot, you must therefore continually practise and test your own skills at a much higher level to ensure you’re prepared for any contingency. You never know when you’ll need to quickly switch up from cruising instructor to rapid situational risk assessor and responder.
For me, this realisation came when I took a ‘short-cut’ on Whistler Mountain. I wanted to get to the furthest section of the mountain and I could see the lift to where I wanted to reach. I’d been skiing along the top of a ridge line, on a blue home trail. However, I saw what appeared to be a nice descent into the next valley and onto the lift. It was soft and powdery to begin with, but suddenly, on my right appeared a cliff and in front of me was a massively steep chute littered with rocks.
Most skiers have a home mountain, which they know like the back of their hand. For me this is Thredbo and so I can criss-cross it all day knowing where my random short cuts will take me. However, again this home mountain confidence can lead to complacency and over-confidence in other situations. Practising your skills on different mountains however, and getting into situations such as I did, is a real reminder of how aware and vigilant you need to be in the outdoors.
Rather than panicking, as I stared down the incredibly steep descent, I quickly dug in and attacked the chute, swiftly switching back and forth one sharp turn after another to control my descent, whilst avoiding the jagged rocks protruding from the snow. With a few crunching sounds from under my skis, I cleared the worst of it and glided out the bottom into a wide open section of deep soft snow. Glancing back up, I could now see the insanity of the ‘short cut’ in all its glory. Let’s do that again! I thought…
Whilst this wasn’t an ideal situation in which to find myself, the ability to switch up to a higher level of thinking and respond swiftly is an important thing to be able to do with any of your outdoor skills. This requires practice and pushing your own limits outside of your regular work. Whilst you’d never take a group with you into a situation like this, this sort of experience reminds you of the risks that are inherent with an activity such as skiing, as well as the need to continuously build and improve upon your own skills.
Expertise does lead to complacency and as outdoor educators and instructors we need to practise our own skills and be reminded that there are always limits to our experience and expertise. This helps us to be aware that there are always going to be risks involved and that we must eliminate, manage or mitigate those risks for our programs. However, if we don’t practise and test our hard skills outside of work, the chances are, your comfortable daily operations will become increasingly exposed to potential complacency as the instructor skill-sets deteriorate and activity risks don’t appear as dangerous as they really are.
To help resolve my over confidence and need to rebuild my alpine skill set, it was time for me to go back to ski school and take some lessons again.