In every outdoor activity there are countless risk factors that must be considered and effectively managed to ensure safe operations and enjoyable experiences. Whilst it's easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of risk management and the enormous task of trying to think of every risk possible, from falling tree branches to unprovoked possum attacks, generally in outdoor ed, risks fall into three main categories. These create a nice triangle which could be used on a pretty PowerPoint presentation, for the world dominating purposes of the illuminati, or to make lots of money mysteriously disappear into places such as Bermuda. Whatever the case may be, the three components which make up the triangle are:
Again, broadly speaking, a failure of one of these area is problematic, but manageable. A failure of two of these areas is dangerous, as the ability to effectively mange the situation seriously diminishes and failure in all three could be catastrophic.
Over the years, I've experienced some interesting situations where one of these areas of ‘normal’ operation becomes compromised. For example, when environmental conditions have unexpectedly turned for the worse, I've found myself in the middle of storms, freezing cold nights, ragingly hot days, white outs, blizzards and everything in between. However, each and every time the situation hasn't been a problem. It's not only been manageable, but it's also been character building for those involved. So why's that?
If the environment itself is the only failing component of the risk triangle, it means you have the right equipment and people are following instructions appropriately, therefore you're just experiencing discomfort, rather than anything else more serious. As a result, the discomfort can provide great learning experiences for the group and not adversely impact on safety.
I will however, qualify something at this point, because someone’s bound to say, ‘What about lightning?’ Let’s take lightning out of the mix for the moment, as getting caught in a thunderstorm is dangerous no matter how you look at it. Supercharged bolts of electricity randomly shooting down from the sky is something you really don't want to be in, especially if you've upset Zeus, Thor or …. at some stage in your life. If you have upset any of these mythical gods for some reason, basically you’re on your own from here on in.
Excluding the wrath of angry gods and severe storms that should be picked up by your weather monitoring practices, getting caught in bad weather is not generally dangerous. However, let's see what happens when we throw a spanner in the works and another component of the triangle becomes compromised. For example, inadequate or poor quality equipment!
On one trip I was leading many years ago, it was late winter and had been raining all morning. We were running a program in the southern highlands of NSW. The hike was around 8km and the forecast was for more light showers. On the surface, not a problem. However, during the lunch stop, we decided to do an equipment check, as most of the students were wearing cheap useless ponchos that their parents had misguidedly bought them to ‘save’ money. This sort of thing will last two minutes in the bush and be torn to shreds in no time at all. You may as well not bother and you’re better off spending that money on an overpriced coffee, as it will have more of an effect on your comfort and well-being than the rubbish poncho. Despite the inadequate rain protection, this wasn’t the major issue, as the most important thing for the students to have was their thermals. This was on their packaging list, but untrusting of the parents and their poor decision made on the rain gear, we thought it best to double check. The result was three pairs of thermals were being carried out of 28 students! This was without a doubt an Epic Fail!!!
Suddenly, we had two components of the risk triangle in play and actively compromised, so our risk profile just shot up dramatically! Hypothermia was at the forefront of my mind and the fact we didn't have any vehicle access to the area only added to this. Given the poor quality of equipment, the lack of essential clothing and the potential for students to be carrying useless summer sleeping bags, we had two options. Accept the high-level of dangerous risk involved with continuing, or modify the plan… Needless to say, we modified the plan, extended the day trip and returned to base.
In stark contrast with this, another trip I led, we were completely smashed by rain, far worse than anything we had experienced the day we had to pull the pin, but the difference was that everyone had thermals and was wearing Gortex jackets. With no epic equipment failure, the situation was uncomfortable for everyone, but completely safe to continue with as planned.
Importantly, the way these three components interact with each other is the determining factor for the real level of risk with which you're working. Many risk assessment schemes fail to take this into account and are focused on writing everything down, but without the understanding of how risk may increase as one or more of these components become compromised or fail. However, it's critical that this is understood and is factored into the risk assessment and management processes and practices for the organisation.
This brings us to the People component of the risk triangle! Unfortunately, there’s no material safety data sheets, engineering limits or forecasts when it comes to people and how they’re going to act, react and behave in any given environment or situation. Even though it’s the most unpredictable and complex factor in the risk triangle, it’s often the least considered and most underestimated. There’s no shortage of stupid people in the world. In fact, many people excel in this area every day of the week and should certainly not be trusted with open flames or power tools, or anything without smooth edges.
The problem is that when you're responsible for people like this who are unpredictable, or taken to doing idiotic thing, it's vital that you watch them and actively manage them. Unlike finding a faulty or damaged piece of equipment and replacing it with a new one, the people risk is far more emotive and complex.
If you can exclude a student from activities who simply will not listen or engage, that could be the best solution as they drag everyone else down with them. However, often schools are reluctant to take definitive action and sadly, sometimes as leaders, we’re stuck with a compounding people risk until their idiocy negatively impacts on the group and someone higher up in the organisation suddenly realises that what you said in assessing the participant risk has now come true. This is not a situation you want to find yourself in and it’s worth having good behaviour management strategies in place, such as higher staff to student ratios or modified programs when the people factor has the increased potential for producing adverse risk to the staff and the group.
As with any other individual component of risk, behaviour alone isn’t necessarily critical and with a good leader more often than not, like every other risk factor in isolation, is not a major concern. However, throw in a bit of bad weather, forget or misuse some vitally important piece of safety equipment and you’re now shaping up for some major issues.
When you’re reviewing your risk management systems it’s well worth considering the interaction of these three components in the context of your organisation and how you can best address them when running any sort of program. Being aware of how the level of risks escalate as one or more are compromised, will help you to build far greater situational awareness. This keeps your risk management practices alive to ensure safe operations and great educational outcomes.
Decision-making is something that most teachers love to control and who can blame them! How could you possibly trust kids to make any sort of decision for themselves? Have you seen what their rooms look like at the end of a week? Kids struggle to decide what they want for breakfast, let alone anything important.
However, rather than hoarding all the decision making for yourself, how can we as teachers teach good decision making processes and skills? For many teachers, this will strike fear into their hearts. The idea of letting go the reins and losing control of the class is a nightmare scenario. After all, they’ve spent years perfecting the art of being in control and it’s something that's deeply entrenched into teachers’ psyche.
No teacher wants to go back to the nerve wracking days of feeling out of control, when they first stepped into the classroom to start their teaching practicum. It's an experience that's etched in all teachers’ minds. Whilst some teachers might have been thinking about delivering a good lesson, others, including myself, were just hoping that no chairs were thrown and no dolphins were injured during the lesson.
Whilst many teachers are used to exercising control over their class, which is a very good idea when dealing with a ratty year seven class to ensure the windows don't get broken, at what point should you start letting go and allowing students to transition into decision makers themselves?
If you want to produce mature young independent thinking adults, at some point you need to relinquish much of the standard ‘classroom’ control associated with education. Many schools profess how wonderful they are at giving students the opportunity to lead, the opportunity to think for themselves and the opportunity to make decisions. However, what's the practical reality of this? Does this really happen? Unfortunately, when I’ve seen this in outdoor education, it's often a case of students being led around on an activity and pretending that they're making decisions along the way, rather than empowering students to take real responsibility for this themselves.
The problem is that students see right through the false veneer of fake ownership and illusionary responsibility. The only way to address this is to actually allow your students to make decisions for themselves. Unless there's a real safety issue that arises, then extract yourself from the process and simply provide the operational framework. Whilst this can be extremely difficult for someone who is used to being in control, it makes a massive difference to the educational outcome.
On one canoe expedition, we were paddling up into the Shoalhaven Gorge. The journey saw us covering around 15km each day, which is a decent distance to paddle, but add to this the fact that it was raining, slightly complicated things. To put this in context, when I said it was raining, it wasn't just drizzling, it was pelting down and had been for some time.
After a long gruelling morning paddle that had lasted several hours, the river split and we turned up into a narrowing section of the waterway. To our right appeared a large sandstone outcrop, which jutted out over the water, forming a natural shelter. The students who were navigating led us over to the shelter, which was large enough to shelter six of our boats. Unfortunately, we had seven, so one boat with two students in it was stuck out in the rain, which was getting heavier.
Given the nature and structure of the shelter, there was no way to allow the students to get out of the boats and all shelter. For the shelter to be of any use they had to be in the water. This created a problem, even though most students were sheltered from the rain, at least two weren’t. This wasn't a problem that I was going to solve for them, so I posed the question, ‘What are your options?’
The group talked amongst themselves for a few minutes, their initial resolution was that they would stay under the shelter and everybody would then have a turn on the outside for five minutes. This meant they would cycle through all the boats every 35 minutes. This seemed fair in a really, pragmatic sense, however, the practical reality of getting boats in and out, especially ones that were fully loaded with gear was just a slight complication to this.
They tried this for ten minutes before realising how difficult this decision was logistically. At this point, it was also lunch time and the students were getting hungry. We could easily eat lunch on the canoes, but again, a tricky initial logistical problem as the food was buried in barrels. Not an impossible task, but fiddly all the same.
I realised I needed to facilitate a discussion with the students. Although it wasn't a huge concern and we could easily have sat there and waited out the storm, which could be another few hours, but then my concern from a safety point of view was hypothermia and so a decision had to be made one way or another so I could factor in a suitable response to avoid students getting too cold. From my point of view, the decision being made was still completely the responsibility of the students. However, I remained diligent in my role as leader to provide the required safety net.
As the students sat there directionless, waiting to be told what to do, which wasn’t going to happen, I threw out another suggestion, “Why don’t you see where we are on the map, then look at where the campsite is and assess how long going it’s going to take us to get there. Then assess other factors, such as the rain, our current shelter and the terrain between here and the campsite. What are some options?
The sound of the students’ voices bounced off the rocky wall of the shelter as they discussed the possibilities and consequences of each option. The reality was the rain wasn’t stopping anytime soon, the canoes were starting to become rather uncomfortable due to the additional few kilograms of water that had been accumulating at the bottom from heavy rain and people were getting hungry. With all these factors at play, it was an interesting discussion to listen to and I had no idea what the outcome would be. I had guessed it was going to be ‘let’s have lunch.’
No matter what the decision was, unless it was ridiculously unsafe, I was ready to go with it. I didn’t frontload the process either to try to get them to decide what I wanted and this is a very important part of the process to ensure that students really are empowered.
The rain kept pouring down relentlessly as they went back and forth with their discussion. I could hear it getting heavier and heavier as the droplets of rain hit the water and splashed back up at us, convincing me that their decision was going to be stay here and have lunch. The students however, seemed to have little interest in the lunch option as they discussed all the various ideas. What I found interesting about this discussion was the fact that the needs of the group seemed to come out as more important than the needs of the individual.
The end result, despite all the uncertainty of for how long the storm was going to continue, was for us to get back out onto the river and keep paddling to camp. The students thought that by doing that, it would mean they could get a fire going, set up their tents for shelter, have something to eat and dry their clothes.
Whilst I was surprised and happy with the decision they made, what really impressed me was the process through which the decision making was made. It was done in a logical manner which explored lots of options I hadn’t thought of myself. Again, if I had just been leading the group on a trip and didn’t let them make any decision for themselves, this wouldn’t have provided any educational benefit whatsoever. I later commended the students on their discussion and decision making process.
As soon as we started paddling though, we got absolutely smashed by the rain. It came in over wave after wave of torrential rain. Yet everyone pressed on and a few kilometres later we arrived at our destination. Despite being totally and utterly soaked and slightly exhausted, as soon as we arrived we had another problem to deal with. Cold wet students and so the race was on to get a fire going in the rain! What impressed me about this was that the earlier discussion that had been led by the students, somehow brought them together as a team and when it came to getting the fire organised, they were already out looking for sticks.
Before too long, the tents were up, we had a raging fire going, the soaking wet clothes had been swapped for warm dry ones and everyone was happily eating their well-deserved lunch. However, the other teacher and I can’t claim responsibility for any of this happening. The work to get the fire going, the food out and organised and everything else done, was not from us telling the kids what to do. They just did it all themselves. I was amazed, as it’s not something that usually happens with groups like this. I’d like to think that once they realised they were trusted to make decisions, it gave them the opportunity to push the boundaries of this and not wait to be told what to do next. Instead, they used their initiative and found what needed to be done next to ensure they and their friends were warm, comfortable and well-fed.
Despite the rain, the discomfort and the one trip to hospital the next day, this remains one of the most memorable canoeing expeditions I’ve ever had and certainly one of the most rewarding.
Not getting staff to student ratios right is a big concern for experiential education. This comes to the fore when you’re looking at how many instructors you need per activity depending on what sort of activity it is.
For example, with canoeing, you currently need one instructor for every six boats. For kayaking, you also need one instructor for every six boats. The difference being the one instructor for six in canoeing lets you take twelve students, while the one instructor for kayaking lets you take six students. These are very, very rigid ratios. Unlike a former boss of mine who said ‘Oh no! They’re just rough guidelines,’ you should never take them to be rough guidelines because if something goes wrong and you end up in court, you’re going to have to justify why you decided to go against industry standards.
When an industry body sets down guidelines for you to use for the safe operation of activities, you should always use them as a baseline. If you do this, you’re not going to get caught out in a legal sense if you’re operating with a group and something goes wrong.
However, if it were as simple as reading standard ratios from a chart for each activity, then how could you possibly go wrong with this? It all makes sense and is ok from a legal point of view! Or is it?
One mistake that’s often made is underestimating the impact that an individual’s behaviour will have on the group. In your staff to student ratio assessment, you must consider who the participants are. Time and time again I’ve seen situations where schools or organisations are happy to go with the set baseline ratios, possibly to save on costs. However, they don’t consider the actual individuals who make up the group.
Behaviour, especially student behaviour, or more accurately poor student behaviour, adds a significant risk factor that’s often totally underestimated. The reality is that the majority of dangerous situations you can find yourself in when running experiential education programs, is due to poor student behaviour. When this is combined with another risk factor, such as poor environmental conditions, or failing equipment, you have a recipe for disaster on your hands. Consequently, failing to properly assess the impact of student behaviour on your staff to student ratios can set a group up for failure before you even begin.
Some groups I’ve had in the past have included some challenging students. Most of the time, you’re able to manage this quite easily. However, when you have an activity such as abseiling in which you have so many pieces of equipment to setup and things to actively monitor, you need to be laser-focused on one student at a time. You don’t have the leeway to be monitoring other students as you run the activity. Therefore, you have to consider different supervision ratios and regimes when you’re doing specific activities like this.
For a canoe expedition I once ran, on paper the staff to student ratios were fine. We had the right number of instructors, the right number of boats and in fact, our ratios were well within the standard operating guidelines. However, the behaviour of the group of students was so poor that it massively impacted on the entire risk profile of the activity. Forget the weather, forget broken equipment, forget poor judgment. The biggest risk was the students we had with us.
When this was brought to the organisation’s attention, it was dismissed and I was told we had enough staff. However, the practical reality was that due to behavioural issues, we didn’t! We therefore needed another one or two instructors with us to safely run the trip. Despite outlining a ‘hypothetical’ situation of what could happen with the then director, prior to the trip leaving, we were told to deal with it and we’d be fine.
We departed on the expedition as instructed and within fifteen minutes of leaving, it all started to go pear-shaped very quickly. What the other instructor and I had predicted, was happening before our eyes. The student behaviour was horrendous. More akin to a youth at risk program, than anything else. We needed at least another two instructors to safely manage the risk and help manage the behaviour of the group.
What was the point of taking them out all? The organisation didn’t understand the risk they had put everyone in by not providing sufficient staff to student ratios. At twenty minutes in, we pulled the pin on the trip and returned to where we’d started. The group wasn’t going to learn anything and were on the verge of causing a major incident to themselves or those around them. Consequently, they were treated as if they were a youth at risk group, for which we weren’t sufficiently resourced to manage with only two staff. Therefore, despite everything on paper saying we had the right number of staff, the reality was, we were on the verge of a major incident only averted because we pulled the pin on it.
Sometimes groups will press on regardless of these sorts of behaviours with the misguided belief that their students may learn something along the way. However, it’s rare for students such as this to have amazing epiphanies and turn things around. Therefore, you’re only increasing the chance that something’s going to go horribly wrong, if you continue without the right staff to student ratios.
When you’re doing your assessment of risks, avoid this mistake. It’s not always just a simple matter of reading a number from a chart. Even if it’s exactly the same activity, exactly the same location and you’re using exactly the same equipment, the biggest variable factor will always be the behaviour of the participants.
If you are aware that poor behaviour from a specific group could be a factor and you still want to take them out, then make sure you have enough staff allocated to effectively manage this additional risk factor.
I’m not saying don’t give kids the opportunity for a fresh start, because that’s an extremely important part of experiential education. However, you must be realistic about the impact it might have on your activities. If you’re aware of poor behaviour and the potential that this behaviour will negatively impact on the program, then you need to ensure that you have a higher staff to student ratio than what would be considered a baseline. By doing so you’ll be able to effectively manage any behavioural or other concerns arising, deal with the situation and continue without further disruption. This ensures you’re always running safe and engaging programs in which staff and students are not placed at risk of harm due to insufficient supervision and support.
Recently, I was on an expedition along the spectacular south coast of New South Wales. Despite having a group of Year 9 boys with me, it was a spectacular trip! The expedition itself was a journey of around 30 km from Dolphin Point in the North, to North Durras in the South. Rather ironic that the most southerly point is called North, but of course everything is North of something, unless you’re at the South Pole.
Given the fact that the group of 18 boys on the expedition had been trained in all the requisite skills beforehand, I framed my briefing so they were running the expedition, not me. Consequently, the boys get the opportunity to explore, take on challenges and make decisions they otherwise wouldn’t.
From a staffing point of view, the other teacher and I were there purely as the ‘safety blanket’ just in case a poor decision were to be made in the dangerous risk category. This means, we only ever would intervene if there’s a serious safety risk. If they walk in the wrong direction for an hour, I don’t care, because it’s not a dangerous risk. If they’re thinking about crossing a flooded river filled with snakes and piranhas, then this is my moment to facilitate a discussion on risk. At the end of the day, however, the students are running the trip and I encourage them to do everything possible themselves without the intervention of staff.
At no point with high school students do I want to be working on the premise that I’m ‘taking’ them out on a trip. Anybody can take a group of students out, blindly lead them around the bush and call it a hike. However, from an educational point of view, this doesn’t make any sense because there are no real learning opportunities that are created from this when you drag students around as if you’re the Pied Piper. Sure, you might wander around the wilderness for a couple of days, see some sights and ‘rough it’ a little. The students might feel a bit uncomfortable being out camping, but ultimately that's about it. There's not much actual learning involved in this scenario.
So for starters, avoid ‘taking’ students on a trip. Their parents can take them on a trip. Any sort of teacher can ‘take’ them on a trip. But as an experiential educator you must let them take you and lead you on the trip. For some teachers, this is way too hard and they don’t want to give up control. I saw an embarrassing example of this in my favourite café in Berry one day. The guy in front of me ordered a coffee, but then instead of letting the barista make it, the man wanted to pour his own milk in. The owner just stared at him and said, “why did you come out for coffee if you want to make it yourself?” Sometimes you really just need to let go!
Anyway, back to the coastal expedition and two different approaches to the same issue. We’d had really high seas for the past week and this raised a few red flags in terms of our risk management and our assessments of the locations. However, there wasn’t anything significant enough to mean we had to cancel or redesign the trip.
Day 1, we hiked along 7 kilometres of beach before reaching a headland that jutted out into the sea. Approaching this point, I positioned myself towards the front of the group, knowing the headland was one of those potentially dangerous points on the expedition that required active supervision.
Since I’d already put all the decision-making responsibilities onto the students, I didn't move into this position to take over. Instead, I put myself there acting in my role as ‘safety manager,’ to facilitate a discussion about the location and the hazard. I wasn't going to suddenly jump in and say, ‘Right, I’m in control now! Follow Me!’ If I did this, it would defeat the whole purpose of what we’re trying to achieve. Why? Because I can’t tell my students one thing and then do the complete opposite whenever I feel like it. Students quickly see through people who aren't authentic and honest, so if you decide to jump in randomly here and there whenever it suits you, good luck building trust after that! It remained up to my students to make an informed assessment and determine for themselves how they should proceed once they have all the information.
I need to be very clear at this point. I’m not going to put the students in any danger if they make a poor decision. I’ll use this opportunity to further expand on actions and consequences and keep working on it until they make a sounder decision.
At this point of the headland, there are two ways around. There’s one path up to the right, as we were traveling south and are on the East Coast of Australia, which goes up and over the headland via a bush track. To the left is the ocean and directly in front of us, are the rocky platforms that step up and down to make up the headland.
I’d stopped at a vantage point a few metres above sea level at the point where we could go no further. From here I could see around to the beach on the other side of the headland. The swell was powerful and as I watched, I could see multiple sets of waves lining up before crashing on the platform below.
To this point, the boys hadn’t been paying much attention to what was going on around them. They’d been hiking for almost 2 hours. They’d been walking and talking and everything had been easy going. The simple act of walking along a beach isn’t particularly hard so it’s easy to get lulled into a false sense of security.
Gathering the boys together on the rocky platform I said, “Ok, this is one of the points that you need to carefully assess and make a decision on. We have a couple of options available to us.” One of the boys immediately said, “Let’s just go straight ahead!”
I looked at him and he was one of those passenger students. We always have a lot of passengers and they’re the ones who just want to be taken on a trip. They’re used to be taken everywhere and having everything done for them. It’s people such as him, that demand instant results from no effort, and they’re the ones who tend to make dangerous ill-informed decisions.
For such as this student, if I hadn’t put myself in that specific location to facilitate a discussion about risk, they would’ve kept walking down onto the next rock shelf that was awash with the bright white foam of the waves, not noticed the approaching swell and got themselves smashed down by the crashing wave before being swept off the rocks as it withdrew back out to sea. Now they’ve just turned a nice walk on the beach into a coronial inquest. The faster you can identify this type of student the better, because all they see is the reward in a fast solution and perceive no risk or no danger as part of this.
I said to the boys, “Wait a minute. Before you make a decision on this, let’s run through the options that are available to us.” I outlined the bush track over the headland versus continuing around the headland. Whilst on the one hand, they were listening to me, more importantly, they were standing watching what the ocean swell was doing. It was only another 30 seconds and I got the result I wanted. The swell surged up and a massive set of three waves, one after the other pounded the rocks below us and a fine ocean spray mist covered us from head to toe.
Suddenly the boys’ attitude changed. “We don’t want to go down there!” one said.
“Ok, explain to me why you don’t you want to go down there.”
“Well look at it!” he said, “the waves keep crashing onto the rocks and if you’re down there, there’s nowhere else to go!”
The passenger from before, who wanted to proceed because he thought it would be easier then said, “We’ll be fine, let’s just time it and run across!”
The next wave smashed onto the platform, quickly followed by another, covering the entire rock shelf.
“Ok, so we have 20 people to get across, how exactly are we going to time it without getting hit by one of those waves?” The boy went silent. He didn’t have an answer as more and more waves crashed powerfully onto the rocks. As it was an incoming tide, it was only going to get worse.
I knew very clearly in my mind what decision needed to be made. However, it was still extremely important to let the boys have a discussion amongst themselves and make the decision. They’d been given all the information they required and were standing looking directly at the dangerous environmental conditions themselves. However, I wasn’t going to pre-empt what they were going to do and therefore save them from making a decision. This was an important teachable moment and they had to make the decision for themselves.
After a few more minutes of discussion and observation, the boys finally made their decision. “We’re going to go around, Sir!” said one them.
“Ok, good let’s make it happen,” I replied.
Without making a big deal about it, we backtracked a couple of hundred metres and went up and over the headland via the bush track. Before long, we were back on the beach continuing our journey.
Alternatively, when we got to that point I could’ve stopped everyone and said, “It’s too dangerous we can’t do this!” and led them around the track myself. However, what would’ve been the point of that? I would’ve wasted a really-important learning opportunity. I would’ve wasted the opportunity to let the boys see what a dangerous situation looks and feels like and wasted the opportunity to let them make an informed decision for themselves.
Whilst you can’t plan situations like this and I’d never take students into dangerous situations just for the sake of it, if they arise, use these opportunities as great teachable moments. Don’t just jump in and take control. Instead, see them for what they are, as extremely important learning opportunities for students. If facilitated in the right way, they can empower your student to make well-informed decisions for themselves, not just as a ‘one off’. This gives them the opportunity to grow as they learn to understand and experience the difference between a dangerous risk and a perceived risk.
Since the boys had made the decision on this occasion to go around, for the rest of the trip, every other headland we came to, the boys ran through this decision making process and either deemed it was safe to continue, or found an alternate route. I didn’t have to prompt their thinking or intervene at all.
In our debrief that evening, we again talked about taking risks. Whilst we’d already dealt with decision making in regards to dangerous risks earlier in the day, that night was a discussion about taking other risks. For example, the risk of trying something new, the risk of going outside our comfort zones, the risk of confronting a fear.
Contrasting the potentially dangerous risk the boys had to deal with that day with their own individual perceived risks, was a great way to conclude the day and reinforce the learning from that teachable moment. During this debrief, I experienced one of the most interesting and insightful discussions I’ve ever had with a group, all because we’d been able to seize that moment earlier in the day and use it to get the students really thinking.
So whenever you’re presented with a situation like this, embrace it, facilitate the discussion and use this to your advantage to help teach your students valuable lessons they’ll never otherwise learn, nor understand, unless they’ve actually experienced it for themselves.
This is something everyone seems to hate doing, which I understand, because it can be quite an involved and time consuming task. As a teacher, you're always under a lot of competing time pressures. Whilst effective risk management needs to be a culture within your organisation, for the moment I'm just going to focus on the paperwork.
There's also often confusion between the development of risk assessments and their practical application. Risk assessments and management systems (RAMS) are living documents, not something that you write just to make the principal happy and then file it away until something goes wrong, at which point everyone scrambles for the dusty document.
RAMS embody what dangerous risks there are for an activity or location and how those risks are managed or mitigated to reduce or remove the dangerous elements of that risk. Consequently, when you put it into practice, they result in well-planned activities in which the participants come back essentially the same way they left, but having experienced something new, unique and awesome.
There are three key areas of risk that you're always looking to effectively address:
As each of these elements can be extremely fluid and dynamic, generic risk assessments that are not tailored and considerate of the specific location, group involved, time of year, potential weather conditions, equipment being used and type of activity is a recipe for disaster. So don't do this. It's really bad practice and potentially exposes you and your organisation to a massive legal minefield.
One time, I was auditing the risk management systems for a school and it quickly became apparent that all their risk assessments had simply been blindly copied and pasted from one activity to another with absolutely no regard for the content.
I'd read only two paragraphs of the first document and it was obvious that the title and activity listed had absolutely nothing to do with what was written below. They were two completely different things.
I had a whole pile of documents to work through. Each one had a different title and date at the top. Each one was signed and dated at the bottom, but the exact same risks were listed for hiking, as they were for canoeing, as they were for rugby, as they were for tennis, as they were for every sport and activity the school did. They not only didn't make any sense, they jumped around here, there and everywhere so much so that if they were subpoenaed by a court, the school would have been found completely negligent and laughed out the door.
Not only had someone written a far too general and poor risk assessment to begin with, everyone else had just blindly copied and pasted it word for word. Nobody had checked it at all and some of them dated back over three years, which I suspect was the point of origin.
Thankfully, most schools I've assessed haven't been like this, but it highlights the danger of the copy and paste approach to risk assessments. The reality is that if you sign off on that document, then you are responsible and potentially liable for what's in that document.
This doesn't mean you need to start from scratch every time. What it does mean though is that you need to develop a specific risk assessment for each individual activity. There may be similar elements from one to another, but be careful that only the similar elements get written in and not just massive slabs of pointless nonsense, so you can make it look as if you've covered every risk possible in the world!
Rather than trying to think of every risk and throwing it for the sake of it, ensure you cover the three key elements that relate to your specific activity:
What are the potential risks and hazards that each of these elements bring to the activity? What strategies are you then going to use to reduce or remove these risks?
Bush fires are for example, a considerable risk in the hotter months, so controls to consider and manage where to hike need to be in place. Controls over campfires need to be in there and active monitoring of information from the rural fire service is a must.
In the colder months, bushfires aren't as much of a concern, whereas exposure of staff and students to cold is. Therefore, a compulsory piece of clothing would be thermals. As each risk is considered, you connect it with a way in which you're going to manage that risk.
The more you write into the document however, doesn't always mean the safer your activity will be, because each risk and control must relate to the specific activity or location. The risk of drowning for example playing tennis would just be stupid and also render the document in the laughable and unreliable category (Yes, that was in one of the documents).
At the end of the day a good risk assessment comes down to your ability to understand the activity you're running and the document you've written and how you and the other staff implement this when running the activity. It's this direct correlation between proactive planning and good practice that will make your risk assessments stand up against rigorous tests and challenges if they were ever called into question. Ultimately though, it's not about the paperwork itself. It's about helping you make every one of your activities safer and easier to manage.
I felt the bracing cold of Canberra, as I stepped from the car in anticipation of another challenging weekend at GovHack. I can understand why the Federal Parliament has a winter recess! However, despite this, I was rugged up and ready.
Walking up to the Snow Centre (Canberra Grammar’s amazing technology building), it was lit up with the GovHack and CGS logo projected onto the wall, looking more like a night club, than a school. Thinking of which, imagine how much money you could make from doing pop-up night clubs in schools on the weekends and in the holidays! Think about it! You have the venue, the sound systems, plenty of parking… You just need a liquor licence and you could make a ton of money! Hmmm I could be onto something… (patent pending © David Gregory 2017!!!)
Anyway, walking in, the place was buzzing with excitement. Even the registration process was cool, as I lined up to register. It was in a darkened room, illuminated by a number of computers. My name badge had been printed on this cool looking Perspex, which in the darkened room appeared to glow.
Armed with my badge and my laptop, I walked around and said hi to a few people I’d met last year. However, my nerves were starting to kick in. For me this sort of event, at least getting started is way outside my comfort zone. I may run around the countryside mountain biking, hiking, exploring new places and speaking to large audiences without any problems, going into an unknown project with a team of people I haven't even met yet is a tough and challenging experience for me. However, that's the whole point! Part of the challenge for me in doing something like this, is the fact that it is confronting and nerve wracking stepping out into the unknown.
Whilst I often talk about ways in which to push others outside their comfort zone, it makes little sense to be teaching this, unless you're going to do it yourself. Despite the nerves, the apprehension and not knowing how that night was going to turn out let alone the whole weekend, I walked in. Always worried that I wouldn’t be able to find a team, I pushed through this negative thinking, in anticipation of what could be. As usual, I was proved wrong on this. At the team forming point, I met some amazing and diverse people with whom I ended up working.
Whilst there are prizes for the most innovative use of data and a range of other categories, for me success was more to do with finding a team and working with that team to produce something interesting over the next forty six hours.
The excited noise of the crowd subsided, as ACT organiser Matt Purcell introduced the evening and ran through the rules of the event and provided a rundown of everything that was happening over the weekend and most importantly what was for dinner!
At the conclusion of his presentation, there was hurried activity as teams scrambled to their breakout rooms to start hacking, or grab a can of drink from the fridge, both good options! For our team, the first challenge was to get to know everybody's names and work out what everybody's strengths were. We quickly went around the table and introduced ourselves with a quick background as to what we do and why we were competing at GovHack.
Most teams had been organised beforehand and many of them had already devised some idea of the sort of projects they were going to work on. However, when you’ve just created a brand-new team with people you’ve never even met before, suddenly the challenge of this exercise escalates. Not only do you have to get to know people and work out their strengths really quickly, you have to come up with a cohesive and innovative idea using government data and produce at least a semi-working prototype within forty six hours.
For many, this might be an overwhelming task. However, I believe the key to success in this is effective communication. Even though we weren't able to go straight to a room and start working on our project, we were able to communicate effectively with each other and through our discussions and brainstorming, ideas started to flow and slowly come together.
As I've said many times before, for me being innovative is really hard sitting around a table. Yet this time, I found as ideas were being thrown up as to what datasets could be used, I was able to start bouncing ideas back that over the next hour and a half started to form into something quite interesting. The only thing which stumped all of us was the team name, which in the end pretty much ended up being based upon the solution that we created.
So what did we come up with?
After harassing countless government mentors and asking them what their biggest problem was, we came up with a mashup idea which evolved from using the cat restricted area data to chase down rogue cats, to a mobile app which allows drivers to quickly and accurately report injured wildlife to ACT Wildlife services. With the ultimate aim of faster rescue services and better data-capture on injured wildlife, our team got to work to research the impact of this in more depth and then built a business case and prototype from this.
The day seemed to evaporate as we brainstormed, planned and developed the idea. The sun had set and the rich tantalising smell of Indian food wafted through the air. With the organisers catering for 170 people, I've never seen so many massive buckets of curry in my life. It was a much needed and appreciated meal after a long day of hacking!
I headed off around 8:30 that evening after what had been a very productive day of team work. We’d all been working on our individual tasks, which were all contributing to the big picture of our overall project.
The next day started slowly, but the pace picked up to frantic levels as the deadline approached. We’d completed the project and the video just in time. However, after the first attempt to export the video from iMovie to YouTube failed, I had to do it manually and when I did, the computer was telling me it would take 26mins to upload the video and there were 13mins to go!!! Not able to rely on a timely server crash, I quickly re-exported the video at a much lower res and nervously cancelled the upload, removed the file and started again! The smaller video file uploaded quicker than I expected and thankfully with 4 mins to go, it was in!
Honey I Hit a Roo! - https://youtu.be/Gpi8EZiYi2Q
As the upload was confirmed, a great feeling of relief and achievement flooded in. It felt great to have successfully completed a project that two days ago, we had no idea about. Whilst at this point, it’s easy to reflect and say there was nothing to worry about, which in the end was true, if I hadn’t challenged myself and pushed myself outside my own comfort zone, I’d never have met such a great team who included Yogesh, Anthony, Ian and Mahathir and been able to create a really cool solution to a massive problem in Australia.
For the remainder of the year, I encourage everyone to do something that’s way outside their comfort zone. Don’t just teach it! Actually do it! Through this, you can become far more confident and effective in your own work and your own life. For me, this was such a great weekend, meeting new people and reconnecting with others I hadn’t seen in a long time. If you’ve never been to something like GovHack, then you must save the date for next year! A huge thankyou to Canberra Grammar, Matt Purcell and all the other GovHack volunteers who made it such an amazing weekend! Great work for me! It was a wonderful experience and the atmosphere of the whole event spoke volumes about how well it was done!
Many organisations have irrational obsessions and unhealthy relationships with their written risk assessments. I’m not saying that you shouldn’t do written risk assessments because you should. They’re an extremely important part of a risk management framework. However, what is unhealthy about them, is the demand from management to have a written risk assessment, but once it’s done, it just gets filed and nothing else is done with it. Yet if something goes wrong, the first question is, ‘Where’s your risk assessment?’
This is a bizarre way to operate because you can write all the risk assessments in the world, but unless your staff are understanding of and actively managing risk, all your paperwork means absolutely nothing. Despite this reality, the paperwork obsession remains a top priority for many organisations, but unless every activity is being run by switched on professionals who pro-actively manage risk within the organisation, then no matter how good your paperwork is, you’re exposed.
The practical reality is that you can write whatever you like in a risk assessment document but often, once it’s written, it’s quickly forgotten. It soon gathers dust and like vampire in the night, it never sees the light of day again, until a pile of fanged marked corpses prompt someone into action.
You simply can’t afford to place yourself or your staff in a situation where this is the standard operating procedure. The end result, if something does go wrong, is usually expressed through head scratching and befuddled proclamations, ‘Well, we wrote a risk assessment!’ However, there can’t be a disconnect between the documentation and the implementation. They must be reflective of each other.
One organisation I previously worked for were totally and utterly obsessed with written risk assessments. I was tasked with auditing their risk assessments and methodology. However, from the moment I started reading what they had in place, it became evident there was absolutely no connection between the activity and what had been written. Subsequently, it became perfectly obvious that nobody had actually read any of the paperwork, which left me wondering what they’d been doing. Not only did their pointless documentation have to be re-written from scratch, a significant process of change management was required to refocus the culture within the organisation to be one that was proactive in its assessment and management of risk.
Often the source of this problem is that many organisations don’t have people who truly understand risk management at the top. Just because someone has reached a leadership position, doesn’t mean he actually knows anything about management, least of all, risk management. Therefore, if you put someone in the situation where he is supposed to be managing risk, yet doesn’t understand risk beyond filing a written document, it’s little wonder that he’s focussed on paper pushing nonsense and not on organisational culture.
In this situation, when something goes wrong, it becomes all about blame and retribution. It’s not about discussing what was the root cause of an incident, it’s about finding scapegoats. This sort of approach is unhealthy and totally counter-productive. What an organisation needs to be able to do is sit down and openly discuss activities that involve risk and be prepared to debrief near misses and learn from each other’s knowledge and experience.
Good risk management procedures stem from this sort of open, honest and pro-active culture of risk managers within an organisation. If everything’s about retribution and blame, you create a culture that wants to cover up anything that doesn’t go 100% to plan. With this, you get a thin veneer giving the impression everything’s fine, yet scratch the surface and you’ll find what can be a toxic mix, priming itself for a significant failure.
To avoid this, there has to be that open and honest conversation about risk, about contingency planning and about response and mitigation. It’s important to have someone at the top setting the tone and facilitating the culture within an organisation to ensure you have a team of proactive risk managers.
Ultimately, documentation is only a tiny part of how your organisation should be assessing and managing risk. The remainder comes down to the professionalism, experience and team work of your staff to ensure that every activity is being run safely and effectively. Once you’re operating with this cultural mindset and have a team of pro-active risk managers, the paperwork takes care of itself.
An operational management plan is essentially the standard operating procedures for your program. Now I hate the term SOP, because it always feels like it's a set of rules that's written down, which ultimately guarantees that nobody ever reads it. So what's the point? Like anything involving people, logistics and risk, it needs to be a living, breathing process that all staff are part of. It has to be clear in the minds of all staff what the process is to run a safe and effective program.
With any experiential education, you need to have some very clear structures in place to both ensure the smooth operation of activities, as well as contingency plans if something goes wrong. Some organisations are obsessed with risk management plans and waivers, thinking this is all the planning they need. They've kept their lawyers happy and there's a document they can produce to prove they at least thought about something before leading the group into the valley of death. Well, there's quite a lot more to it than that and this is where many organisations go wrong.
You’d think it goes without saying that you need a plan, an itinerary, a schedule, risk assessment, student medicals, permission notes, or at the very least a class roll! However, I’ve regularly seen the focus of planning to be on only one or two of these components, rather than properly addressing them all. You must address them all! There's no point in having an itinerary and risk assessment written and not having the logistics and staffing in place to execute your plans.
You always need a functional end-to-end operational plan, that is flexible enough to handle multiple contingencies. Therefore, you need to plan for everything from the perfect operation to various “what ifs” for minor hurdles, emergencies and full crisis response. An effective response though has more to do with the staff’s mental state and ability to respond and adapt to a fluid situation, rather than a rigid written plan that's immediately forgotten when confronted with a complex crisis.
I've seen this done very well, but also extraordinarily poorly, especially when people aren't operating programs all the time and they feel they need to make things up as they go. There's a huge difference between being adaptable and making stuff up on the run. So one massive hint here, Don't Make It Up As You Go! Have a well-structured, executable plan that everyone’s part of that can be quickly enacted if something goes wrong.
What if the weather changes? What if an emergency happens? What if a crisis happens? Are you prepared to switch it up and respond quickly and effectively? I've seen some great written risk assessments where I have mused, ‘wow they've thought of everything!’ but then looking further on, no contingency plans nor any real idea as to how to manage an emergency or crisis.
It's Never Nice Getting Hit By This
I've seen and worked on programs (thankfully not run them) where the organisation had a ‘nothing will ever go wrong’ approach. This is where everything is done on razor thin staffing, based upon the idea that everything will go exactly to plan and I mean exactly to plan! The danger of this, is firstly, it's idiotic in the extreme. When you're dealing with groups of students and staff in different locations and involving vehicles and equipment, something could eventually go wrong. If you have no flexibility and adaptability factored in, then you're asking for a lawsuit and in fact, you deserve the horrendous experience of being dragged through the courts for your stupidity. I never felt safe, nor comfortable on this program. Thankfully, when I brought it to the attention of the organisation and they couldn't see the problem with it, I left and found another place to work that did.
This ‘razor thin’ notion, usually done to ‘save money,’ that works off the basis that everything will go exactly to plan, just increases the pressure, stress and fatigue on staff, which adds to the inevitability of something going wrong. Philip of Macedon (Alexander The Great’s father) put it very nicely. ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’
So with that in mind, here's an outline of how I develop an operational management plan:
If you plan around these 10 steps, then you're well on the way to having a safe, enjoyable and rewarding experience for everyone involved.
I've previously written about the need for having a designated safety officer as part of your operational management plan. The safety officer is your backup and support for all field operations and as such, should be a key component of your risk management strategy.
However, this isn't a token honorary role for someone to sit around and do nothing, or ‘do admin’. The person has to be experienced, competent and switched on, ready to respond to anything from small hurdles and emergencies, to full-blown crisis and critical incident management.
When do incidents happen? Any time, any place and to anybody! Consequently, the safety officer role must be taken extremely seriously and be done by someone who is capable of quickly responding and adapting to what can be fluid, chaotic and evolving situations.
Unfortunately, I've seen the other side where organisations and individuals haven't valued the safety officer role, nor taken it seriously and those put in the position of safety officer have thought it to be a nice, cushy, quiet ‘day off,’ which it's not. I could run through several examples of the disastrous mess that's occurred when organisations and individuals have taken this approach, however, I’ll stick with just one for now.
It was a weekend like any other at our residential outdoor education campus. We had 60 students in the field and 20 onsite. My group was the one onsite, so I had an insight into everything that was going on. I was told my help wasn't needed, but I made sure I remained informed and kept my finger on the pulse, just in case things changed.
I'd seen the safety officer, who was part of the admin staff and not really experienced in field operations. He'd been causally wandering around campus and saying how he was looking forward to finishing up and going home, as he didn't like working weekends. It had basically been a trade off. He had to work a weekend as did everyone else, but rather than be out on a trip, he decided the best place for him was in the office ‘doing safety.’
At around 3pm, a call came in from one of the groups. One of the boys had been bitten by a snake… They weren't sure what sort…
The near comedic chaos that followed demonstrated that not only do you need someone on safety. You need someone who is switched on and competent. Maps were being pulled out, madly opened and juggled about to work out which way was up. A worried and panicked expression had set into the safety officer’s face and a general state of confusion gripped the air.
This really wasn't the confident basis for a swift response and to say things took a long time, would be a serious understatement. The lack of mental preparation by the safety officer and the limitation of knowledge and understanding as to what was going on became immediately apparent.
Fumbling through the whole messy process, what should've been a simple pickup from a trailhead ran from 3pm until just after 8pm when the boy was finally transported to hospital. There was no hiking. No 4WDing involved. Everything was accessible via sealed roads and the nearest town was 20mins away. As evacuations go, it was a fairly simple and straightforward one. So why did it take so long?
The main factor was the safety officer wasn't switched on to the fact that something could go wrong. He had the attitude that all he was doing was having a nice quiet day in the office, where he might have to answer the occasional phone call. He was also already thinking about going home. Because he wasn't mentally prepared, when circumstances changed, he didn't shift his thinking into response mode. Instead, he immediately went into panic mode, which consequently turned everything into a chaotic mess, dramatically increasing the potential for further harm.
At the end of the day, the boy finally got to hospital and thankfully, after tests were done (and the fact that it had been hours since the bite and no obvious signs of envenomation had emerged), the doctors found he hadn't been poisoned and was treated for the puncture wounds and sent home. This result was sheer dumb luck and if the boy had been poisoned, the outcome could have been far worse.
The bottom line is, don't rely on dumb luck, or inexperienced staff to get you through an emergency or crisis. If they're not experienced enough to be in the field, then they're the last person you want acting as backup and operational support. As part of your standard operations, you need to effectively plan and prepare for contingencies and most of all, ensure your safety officer is the right person for the job. When things go wrong, they go wrong quickly and your safety officer needs to be able to react and respond just as quickly and effectively.
By doing this, you ensure the right framework and resources are in place so that in the unlikely event something adverse happens, it can be swiftly contained. Good response can prevent any further injury or damage can be minimised. Right person, right place, right time, isn't dumb luck, it's good planning.