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.
Last year I bought a keep cup! Being a coffee addict, who must have a decent coffee each day, after watching the ABC’s ‘War On Waste’ documentary, I realised there’s so many ways we can reduce our impact and ultimately save time money and energy. The first step was for me to stop using disposable cups for coffee and instead keep using the one cup each day. Plus I got the right size that maximises the coffee flavour and reduces the wasted milk, a win for good coffee all around. The places that give a 20¢ or 30¢ discount when you bring your own cup are fantastic, as that’s an even better incentive to use your own cup. From a business point of view, it’s costing around 10¢ to 20¢ per take-away cup anyway and add to this the storage space needed and cost of ordering and carrying disposables, then you’ve more than balanced out the cost on this.
However, stepping away from the business case for a moment, what impact can this have in a year. If I’m having at least one coffee a day or more likely, two, this is anywhere from 365 to 500ish cups a year that won’t go into landfill. If you then extend this over a large population, it suddenly turns into millions of cups and tons of waste that can’t be recycled. Now the ABC’s documentary covered all of this in great detail, so I won’t repeat it all here. What’s been interesting with people’s rhetoric about environmental impact is that when people say the problem is too big and we can’t do anything about it, then we must challenge this assumption because it’s a load of rubbish, quite literally.
Students today are faced with cleaning up a massive dilemma that’s been caused by cheap products and the disposable nature of everything. Like many problems I’ve encountered through work over the years, they were never of my making, but I ended up being tasked with the clean up job, which is often quite unpleasant to say the least, but ultimately needed to be done by someone to ensure sustainability and growth of something over the long-term.
I was recently in Kyoto and this reminded me of the fact that back in 1997, the Kyoto Protocol was signed, which set targets for lowering emissions and tackling climate change. However, twenty one years on, we’re still facing the growing impact on the waste we produce. The US and Australia have recently claimed it’s all too hard and we shouldn’t really do anything about it until somebody else does. This is a massive cop out and it’s like a situation where someone has a heart attack in a crowded place. They’re less likely to be helped by anyone, because everyone else is waiting for someone else to do something about it. However, if we’re trying to teach and show leadership in this space, then we can buck this trend and help out despite everyone else’s hesitation.
Don’t get me wrong. This is not about becoming a tree hugging greeny and abandoning the modern world to go and live in a commune. If you’re thinking of doing that, well that’s nice for you, but not what I’m getting at. Instead, it’s about seeing the problem for what it is and its negative impact on the world. Most climate change ‘deniers’ are purely looking at it from what they think is an ‘industry’ point of view, which means if we do something about it, it will hurt jobs growth and our industries. Given the fact that businesses are more likely to look for opportunities to reduce waste, reduce costs and develop new ways of doing things, the political point of view is often in stark contrast with the opportunity for new ventures. It’s these new ventures which our students of today will not only want to do, but if we don’t approach the issue now, they’ll be forced to do, but at a greater cost.
So how can we examine and reduce our impact over the next year? Either from a personal perspective or at school, why not create some measurable metrics that you, your family and/or the students create?
Firstly, identify areas in which you create a significant amount of waste and organise it into what can be reduced, reused or recycled. Put a big visual chart on the wall where you can record what was done, used, or not used each day, or week, making sure that the time periods and what you’re recording is measurable. The coffee cup is a great place to start, as Australians are overwhelmingly addicted to their daily coffee. What about getting your newspaper online? What about annoying checkout chicks by combining fruit and veg in a single bag? What about walking instead of driving? Look at all of the daily routines and consumption and see what could be reduced? How much money could this save you in a year?
When you’ve worked all of this out, why not also get a piggybank and for every time you make a saving, why not put that 5, 10, 20¢ or $1 or 2 in the piggybank and see how much you have reduced your costs by the end of the year. This is a great project to do at home with the family or at school with the students and a valuable environmental and business exercise.
The reality is that we do have an impact on our environment and we also have a responsibility to look after the environment, because the more damage we do now, the greater the mess will be for the next generation to clean up. Whilst I enjoy walking away from a cleaned up mess, the time, energy and effort that goes into the clean up, it is always far greater than preventing the mess in the first place. Next year, look at what you can do to help address a global issue that affects us all. Even if your neighbours aren’t doing their bit, forget them. Show some leadership and take the responsibility into your own hands, because the difference you make, can help shape a better future for everyone.
For some time, I’d been wanting to go to the Bay of Islands. It’s a subtropical region at the northern end of the North Island of New Zealand. There are over 100 islands within the Bay of Islands and it’s a wonderful, tranquil environment that’s been well-protected by New Zealand’s Department of Conservation.
In addition to being a place of great beauty, it was also the first port of call for Lieutenant Cook who was apparently on his way to discover the ‘Great Southern Land,’ after a massively unsuccessful attempt at observing the transect of Venus in Tahiti. Cook was in need of some good luck, although he really needed it later in life when visiting Hawaii for his comeback tour! Like most come-back tours, it did not end well, as Cook was part of a tasty farewell feast on his final night.
As with a number of Cook’s voyagers, he managed run his ship, The Endeavour, around on a rock, which is called Whale Rock, as Cook first thought he’d run into a whale. He only worked out that it was actually a rock, when he hit it again on the way out!
Most of the islands are protected areas and a significant effort has been put into the eradication of introduced predators and pests. Many islands have had their natural beauty restored having eradicated feral cats, rats, foxes, dogs and possums. Yes… possums. Despite them being cute and protected in Australia, they’re horrible, rabid and evil in New Zealand and make nice warm blankets.
The boat headed out to the Hole In The Rock, which is an amazing hole in a rock that’s been eroded by the sea over time. The vaulting cliffs above the wall are dressed with a beautiful light canopy of greenery and passing through the hole in the rock on the boat is a wonderful experience. On the other side, you can see the old lighthouse, once kerosene, then diesel, now replaced by an automated solar powered beacon. The lighthouse keeper’s house also remains and I was informed it’s listed as $15 per night to stay, although it’s a six hour walk to get there and possibly haunted! Still… $15 for one of the most spectacular views imaginable!
It’s quite ironic that this area of first contact with Europeans in New Zealand and the start of introduced species, is at the forefront of removing introduced species. The exception is the “introduced” tourist who help fund the conservation work being done.
Once off the boat, I managed to go for a hike to the top of some amazing cliffs. Looking down with slight trepidation, I could see the clear azure water and slight swell splashing into one of the tiny bays. Heading to the highest point on the island, I could see 360 degrees of amazing rugged coast line, open ocean and islands dotted all over the place. A truly spectacular area of natural beauty and one in which ground dwelling birds such as the native Kiwi are being protected and their numbers rebuilt having previously been decimated by the possum. Not quite, but it sounds more dramatic than foxes and dogs which get blamed for many things.
Going somewhere like this helps you to appreciate the importance of protecting our natural environment. Humans and natural wonders can live hand in hand, but it requires us to think about how we’re impacting on an ecosystem and what we need to do to effectively care for and manage our surroundings. As the world decreases the number of mindless jobs with automation, perhaps this will allow that with more time, energy and resources, these can be spent on protecting the environment we have.
Due to the efforts of NZ Department of Conservation, numerous endangered species of birds, plants and animals have been given a second chance to live in a balanced and natural environment, once shattered by the inevitable colonisation and modernisation of the world and now restored. Let’s just hope that the New Zealanders don’t release the Kiwi on our shores as revenge for the possum. Apparently, they’re very territorial and have a long pointy beak which could wreak havoc on our nation!
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.
Canberra is an awesome place for mountain biking. With a range of well-maintained tracks close to town, they're convenient, accessible and a great way to spend a day or just wind down after work.
Mount Stromlo is a premiere location for Mountain Biking, with hundreds of different interconnected tracks and trails, all maintained by the local council. There's something for everyone here. For the beginner, there's an awesome playground area which is sign-posted with handy hints on how to ride each section. Full of logs, obstacles, berms, rollovers, seesaws and a pump track, this is great for basic training and skills development.
On the mountain itself, there are six major courses to ride, which can be combined or chopped and changed to create countless unique riding experiences. There's everything from the green beginner tracks to some wild double black diamonds for the expert rider. Stromlo has many days worth of tracks to ride and it's well worth planning a trip there with this in mind. From skills development to adrenaline pumping down hills, this is one fantastic place to ride.
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