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.
No teacher should ever be allowed to go back to the school that he or she attended as a student! No, seriously, they shouldn’t be allowed even into an interview. You’re just asking for problems.
This is one of the weirdest workplace situations possible, yet it’s been accepted and encouraged by so many hopeless schools which believe they cannot survive without the shackles of the past.
Think about it. With what other business or organisation can you get a job where you’ve had such an involved relationship as a child? None! That’s right, none! You can’t be in the military as a child and then go back and become a general. You can’t spend six to twelve years of your life in hospital to go back and be a doctor there. You can’t spend the same amount of time in any other sort of workplace and then end up back there as an employee. So why is this something that’s ok in schools?
In my opinion it’s not ok. It’s weird. It’s unnatural and anyone who wants to go back to the school in which they were educated has some serious mental health issues which they need to work through. Even if you enjoyed your time at a school, going back there as a teacher is a completely different role and experience. Schools who are employing former students as teachers, could be setting themselves up for failure.
Over the years, I’ve come across some highly talentless teachers who, by virtue of the fact they went to the school, got a job back at the school. Perhaps because they were too afraid of the real world, they stayed there long enough to get promoted even further beyond their talents. No further can this problem be highlighted than when a former student ends up in charge of a school. This is quite insane!
Education should be about progress, challenging the status quo and pushing the limits of what’s possible. Taking people back into a school with no other real world experience than that of the same sheltered school environment as the sum total of their life experiences, is only asking to possibly perpetuate poor educational practice and culture.
To be effective in today’s educational environment, teachers need to have diverse life experiences so they can impart not only knowledge, which is becoming less and less important as we speak, but to educate others from their own life experience to help prepare students for the real-life challenge outside of school. If teachers have never stepped outside of school, let alone the school they went to, then this could be a train wreck just waiting to happen.
Hence, if there’s a teacher whose only life experience has been the school which they went to as a child, either don’t hire them, be skeptical about their ability to teach in any meaningful way and if they’re already at your school, perhaps it’s time they broadened their horizons and went out and got some real life experience.
The days of the ‘old school’ mentality that perpetuated rotten cultures and practices, needs to be one more ghost of the past never to make its way back into education. Empowering former students to realise this and help them to get a job that will let them grow in themselves, is the kindest thing you can do for them and for your school. At the end of the day, going back to teach where you were a student is just insanely weird and something everyone can and should live without.
This is a bit different in some ways from what I usually talk about. However, at the same time it's exactly what I'm on about. I was watching a documentary on Twisted Sister the other night. For those of you who don't know who they are, they're a 70-80s glam rock band that took stage performance to the next level. Google them and watch some of their film clips. My two favourite songs are We’re not Gonna take it! And I Wanna Rock! There pretty cool film clips, especially if you don't like classrooms and psycho teachers!
Anyway, even though they’re not one of my favourite bands, they have such a fascinating history of adversity and rising to the challenges that were constantly thrown up in front of them. It shows how such drive and determination paid off, despite what seemed to be a world conspiring against them at every turn.
From the start, they were weird! A bunch of glam rockers dressed up in outrageous costumes and performing on the fringe of the rock scene. Unlike many performers today who think the only way to get their big break is through a contest, they played the pub scene in New York State. Despite everyone having rough and quiet beginnings, not knowing if anyone were going to show up to their performance, they quickly found a following of dedicated fans who followed them from venue to venue for each of their shows.
They became so popular in the live rock scene, they were selling out shows wherever they went. However, they could land a record deal. If they'd started today they could've recorded their own songs and have them playing on YouTube and ITunes within days. However, the world was a very different place in the 70s & 80s and getting heard by anyone in the music industry was tough. But they continued to play and do what they loved to do.
They got their big break where they were going to perform at the Palladium theatre. The show sold out in record time, but one of the band members collapsed and the performance had to be postponed. Instead of record executives who were originally booked in to see the big show, they got secretaries and assistants showing up the next time around. As a result, no record deal was struck. This went on and on. Then they finally managed to sign a deal, but the executive died of a heart attack on the way home. So that fell through. Then they signed a deal in the U.K. But the record company went bust and back home they were black listed by Atlantic Records who threatened to fire anyone who tried to sign them.
By this point most people would've given up. Generation Y certainly would have, but not Twisted Sister. They kept going and going and trying to find new ways of opening doors every time one slammed shut in their face. At one point they drove 56 hours across America to play a 29min show! Now that's determination!
This endless struggle would’ve destroyed most people and they probably would've given up and begun resentfully making coffee somewhere and claiming they could've been big, but the universe stopped them. Well Twisted Sister grabbed the universe and bent it to its will! Their big break finally came in England when they were doing a live show and did such an epic performance, they got the attention of a British Atlantic Records executive who signed them up for a record deal! Much to the disgust, it would appear of the head of Atlantic Records US, who had blocked an album deal for so long, obviously realising there was money to be made from this deal, he finally capitulated and with this deal their album went platinum!
This shows how being tenacious and persistent can pay off. If you truly believe in something, even when the odds are not only stacked against you, but people are actively working against you, if you stick to your guns and keep working towards your goal, you can achieve anything. If it doesn't work to start with, or if doors keep closing, instead of giving up in five minutes and blaming the world for stopping you, keep working on it. Keep knocking on doors. Keep coming back. Keep fighting to do what you love and despite the odds against you, if you stick with it, you can achieve some amazing things.
To get the full understanding of the roller coaster ride they had, watch the documentary We Are Twisted Sister. It really is an eye-opening journey of how what seemed a hopeless pursuit, ended in a platinum record deal and one of the greatest live performance rock acts in history.
This week it's story time! What's been your worst day at work? Has there been a day when nothing has gone right, where everybody seems to be against you and when you just wished the day would end? I've had many days like that over the years, between paranoid conspiracy theorists ringing me up over and over again when I worked for a politician, to my bus catching fire whilst trying to pick up a group of stranded students, there have been some exceedingly long and frustrating days. However, one of the more bizarre days happened in my first job at a Retravision store. Whilst at that stage they were the biggest retailer of electrical appliances, they’ve been replaced by other retailers of electrical appliances and online retailers.
It was a Thursday morning and a day like any other. I arrived around 8:20 ready to setup. However, overnight the electrical fuse box at the back of the store had been vandalised. An electrician had arrived and was working on the wiring outside the loading bay. There were only two of us in the shop that morning. The owners and the floor manager were away, leaving us to open and run everything.
My colleague told me not to turn anything on until we got clearance from the electrician, so we waited around and several coffees later, the electrician finished his work and it was time to turn everything on. I started upstairs with the wall of TVs. They were the old sort which had a large vacuum tube inside of them, a standard and popular feature of any electrical goods store. One by one I turned the TVs on until the 15 metre wall was illuminated with the flashing of the same mindless daytime TV channel.
Just as I finished turning the last one on, I heard a loud hissing noise. Stepping back, I glanced back along the wall and heard another hissing sound, then another and another all coming from different TV sets. Suddenly there was a loud bang! Dark black smoke plumed from the back of a TV at the start of the wall. This was followed quickly by another loud bang! More nostril burning smoke billowed from behind the TVs. There was another hiss, and another each time followed quicker by more loud bangs as the smoke grew denser. TV after TV continued to explode in rapid succession from one end of the wall to the other. Set after set after set hissed and exploded. The room now choked with dark black acrid smoke.
I stood before the smouldering ruins of what once was tens of thousands of dollars worth of TVs, now nothing more than lifeless screens. How was I going to explain this one? I nervously walked downstairs to break the news to Barry. Thinking which, out of a staff of nine, three were named Barry. What are the odds of that? Anyway, the Barry that was there with me that day was one of the salesmen and not the Barry who owned the business who I'd have to explain this to later.
“There’s a slight problem upstairs,” I said to Barry, which was probably a tiny understatement as the smoke had set off all the alarms and was so thick it started to linger its way downstairs. Barry quickly dashed up the stairs brandishing a fire extinguisher that was to prove totally and utterly useless. At the top of the stairs he stopped dead in his tracks.
“Oh crap!” he exclaimed, seeing the extent of the problem. “I'd better tell the electrician,” he continued as he dashed back down the stairs and ran out the back.
All I could hear from the back of the building was a series of loud swear words, sounding as if they were coming from the electrician. It turned out that somehow instead of leaving the power set on 240 volts, he had somehow upped it to 410 volts, consequently overloading the entire system and blowing the crap out of everything. Thankfully, salesman Barry made the phone call to owner Barry and filled him in on all the details of what had happened. Storeman Barry was out on a job and completely oblivious to anything that had happened. He is not actually part of the story but given that he was also named Barry, he at least deserved to be mentioned.
Over $40,000 worth of TVs were destroyed that day, never to transmit another awful daytime TV show again. It took about a week for the caustic smell of burnt electrics to finally make its way out of the upstairs showroom and another week to finally replace all of the televisions that blew up that day. Whilst for me, it wasn't actually that bad a day at work. However, for the electrician, things could only get better.
Now thankfully this isn't something that happens every day, but it does happen. Given the fact that my first job was at a gun club, shouldn't mean the chances of being shot increases. Whilst many bleeding hearts will tell you the dangers of shooting, it remains one of the safest sports you can do. I've had far worse injuries from hockey than anything else. Mountain biking and skiing are right up there for the most dangerous sports. However, once again, I digress and so back to the topic.
I'd got my first job as many teens do at 15. However, it wasn't a fast food joint. It was a shotgun club. My job was to put the skeets on the hopper and fire them up so that people could shoot at them. It was a fun job that paid really well. Most of the time I just sat inside a concrete bunker waiting for the buzzer. When I heard that, I'd load the clay and off it would go. This would be followed by the sound of a shot gun and depending on how good a shot they were, it either shattered the clay pigeon, or it would gracefully sail back down to land in the field nearby. The only real hazard of the job was when a clay shattered inside the bunker as it flew out. You'd be shielding your eyes as you were peppered with tiny ceramic fragments as they ricocheted off the solid concrete walls.
The job was fun and often I'd get to shoot a few clays afterwards too, which added to the excitement of it all. One day however, we were on a different range. It was the field and game range. At this range, it wasn't the traditional skeet tower and bunker configuration that we usually worked with, meaning the clay pigeons would be fired from either a tower, or the bunker. Instead, we used a whole range of different styles and sizes of clays which could be bounced along the ground, thrown up into the air, down a gully or every which way possible. It added a remarkably different sort of challenge to it all.
That day, I was stationed high up on top of this rock. When I heard the buzzer, I'd fire two clays up over this rock and the shooter would see them as if they were birds through the trees. This was no worries at all as I was high up and protected by a rock. However, the next range over, something was being fired across the gully and unfortunately I found out the hard way that this side wasn't so well protected.
There had been a few shots now and then where I'd heard the leaves in trees above getting sprayed through with shot, but thought nothing really of it. I was protected by a rock. It was way above my head as it should be. It was all good. However, just as I was loading a double clay, I heard a boom and whipping sound coming at me. My arm suddenly stung before a hot painful burning sensation took over. I grabbed my right shoulder with my hand. Looking down I could see blood, lots of blood and my upper arm dimpled with telltale signs of a spray of shotgun pellets.
I don't remember screaming or crying in pain. It all felt so surreal. One second I was loading clays. Next I'd been shot in the arm and bleeding profusely. I felt my right hand release the clay hopper and I shot the two clays up into the air. It must have surprised the range officer, as I'd let them go too early. He was on the radio to see what was happening.
I said, ‘I think I might need some help. Can you come up?’
I remember the reply was one of grumbles, as if it were so much effort to get up the hill. (Actually, for most of the club members it was, given the fact that they weren't the fittest group of individuals.)
However, when he got up there and saw the blood, his attitude changed. Thankfully, someone in the club had some idea of first aid and it wasn't long before they stopped the bleeding and revealed some nice neat pellet holes in my right shoulder.
Whilst today, I'd be seriously looking into their risk processes and procedures to find out why there was such an horrendous failing in their safety, back then. After I realised that the wounds weren't too deep, the pellets had all been removed and I was ok, it now felt so cool to have been shot at work and as compensation, they gave me and extra $50. All in all, a great day at work.
It’s back to school for the year and as always, due to the beautifully warm weather, it's one of the most popular times of the year for outdoor ed trips. It's also prime snake season and given the fact that Australia has the world’s greatest collection of deadly snakes, including the deadliest and second deadliest that can kill you within an hour, if you're bushwalking or camping, it's one risk that seriously needs to be addressed.
Australia has around 140 different species of snake and about 100 of these are venomous. Yes, we do indeed have the most poisonous creatures in the world. However, out of all of these, only a few are likely to inflict a wound that could kill you. These include, but are not limited to the Inland Taipan (Fierce Snake), Brown snake, Tiger snake, Death adder, Black snake, Copperhead and Rough Scaled snake.
Each year in Australia, there are around 3000 snake bite injuries, of which 400 - 500 casualties receive anti-venom. A fact is that snakes don't always envenom their victims and more often than not, it's a dry bite. However, you must assume if bitten, that every bite is venomous and treated as such until otherwise proven. Also be aware that baby snakes are more likely to inject a massive dose of venom into you if they bite, as they don’t have the maturity to decide to venom or not to venom, that's the question on all snake’s fangs.
A fatality as a result of a snake bite is quite rare. It's roughly between 1 and 3 people out of the 3000 who receive bites year that will result in a fatality. Around 60% of recorded deaths in Australia have been due to brown snake bites; the remainder are generally shared out amongst the inland taipan (world deadliest snake), the tiger snake (super aggressive) and the death adder (scary name).
Therefore, how do you manage this risk? Well for starters “DON’T TOUCH SNAKES!” With the exception of the tiger snake, most snakes aren't aggressive. By leaving them alone, you've basically managed most of the risk involved. I've encountered countless snakes over the years and I've never even come close to getting bitten, because they tend to make a fast getaway. However, when provoked, poked, prodded and picked up, they do tend to become quite responsive. The fact that most bites occur on hands and wrists when people try to capture or kill them, should say something. Stupid people have a tendency towards picking snakes up and boys in particular find that they can't resist the temptation and on average more young males get bitten than anyone else. So again, “DON’T TOUCH SNAKES!”
To highlight just how docile they can be, one of my colleagues last year was setting up a shelter when a red belly black snake slithered over his foot. He stood still, possibly frozen from the initial shock and associated fear, and the snake just continued on its way, not even noticing that my colleague was there. If you're hiking, ensure everyone is wearing sturdy footwear and heavy long pants and/or gators. The fangs on Australian snakes can't usually penetrate through these materials that prove great protection against the fangs. The one snake bite casualty I dealt with had been hiking in reef sandals and been bitten on the arch of her foot after stepping on the snake. Had she been wearing hiking boots, she would never have been bitten.
Signs & Symptoms:
With everything, no matter how well you try to prevent these things, people still get bitten. (If only we could leave the stupid people at home). Most bites that occur when out hiking, occur when someone accidentally steps on them. The pain has been described from being struck by a baseball bat, to being like a stick flicking up at you, to people feeling nothing at all until they start showing the signs and symptoms of envenomation, which include headache, tingling, stinging, burning or abnormal feelings of the skin, feeling anxious, tachycardia (increased heart rate), irregular heartbeat, nausea (feeling sick) vomiting, stomach pain, diarrhea, dizziness, breathing difficulties, problems swallowing, muscle weakness, confusion, paralysis, coma or death in the most severe cases. You may also see redness around the area of the bite and residual venom. However, it's possible that you won't see two clean fang puncture wounds and so rely more on the signs and symptoms.
To treat a snake bite wound, use the pressure immobilisation method. To do this, lay the person flat and do not let the victim move or walk anywhere as this will increase the pace at which the venom travels through the body. Take a compression bandage (preferably a snake bite bandage if you have one in your kit) and apply pressure directly over the top of the bite. The bandage should be firmly on and not so tight that it restricts blood flow. Snake venom travels through the lymphatic system, not the blood stream and so the compression bandage slows this process. If you have a second bandage (which you should), start at the toes, or fingers and apply the pressure bandage all the way to the top of the limb. Use another bandage each time you run out and then test the toes or fingers for capillary refill to ensure it’s not too tight.
Once you have the entire limb bandaged, immobilise that limb. If it's a leg, tie it to the other leg. If it's an arm, splint or tie it to the body. Basically, just make sure they can't move it. Then get them to professional emergency medical care as fast as possible. To be clear, this is just a general overview and for accurate up-to-date first aid advice, check the Australian Resus Council’s Official Guidelines
It's important to be aware that snake bites can cause a severe allergic reaction, anaphylaxis in some people. If you're treating a snake bite and someone has an anaphylactic reaction, treat it in the same way you would any other anaphylaxis as it becomes the priority and then apply the pressure immobilisation bandage.
Whilst snakes are a risk when out and about in the Australian bush, the most important thing to remember in the effective management of this risk is, “DON’T TOUCH SNAKES!” Happy summer camping season!
Whilst much of what I’ve written about so far is about risk management and working with teenagers in the outdoors, it gets way more complex when you add in the adult factor, especially when the adult factor has less awareness about the dangers of the outdoors than their own children.
This story goes back quite a few years. It started with a fishing trip and finished with a trip to hospital. This was also the last time I went fishing, not because of what happened, but I just don’t like fishing. It was the summer holidays and I was staying with my parents at their house near the beach, south of Sydney. It was a warm sunny day and a friend of mine called to see if I wanted to go fishing with him. As I had nothing else pressing on my agenda of sleep-ins and body boarding, I thought, why not?!
We headed down to Narrawallee Inlet, which is a beautiful estuary at the northern end of Narrawallee Beach. It’s a great spot for fishing, as you can stand next to the deeper channel on the rocks and safely fish without a boat. We positioned ourselves on the rock shelf on the corner of the channel as it turns, narrows and heads out to sea and cast our rods ready for the exciting wait until a fish decided to take a bite.
A Much Calmer Day At The Inlet - Rock Shelf To The Right, Buckley's Beach To The Left
We’d been there for some time and didn’t really catch much, other than a leather jacket, which we threw back. It was late morning and we were both getting pretty hungry and so were about to head home for lunch, when we noticed something in the water. To explain how the inlet works, there’s a big body of water, a deep channel and a beach on the opposite side of the channel. Many people like to swim in the large body of water and float with the current in the inner channel, before it gets to the corner of the beach, speeds up and shoots out to sea. It’s a lot of fun to do on the inner channel inside the inlet… if you’re familiar with it!
Back to the fishing! We noticed four people, some distance away floating along in the current in the inner channel. As they drifted closer, we could see they were three young girls and one older man, who appeared not to be doing anything to get themselves out of the channel as they approached the corner where we were standing. They seemed to move faster and faster! Matt and I glanced at each other, knowing what each were thinking. ‘Oh Crap!’ They weren’t going to stop! The kids hit the corner and were swept effortlessly by the current into the main channel. Simultaneously, Matt and I dropped our fishing rods and started running along the rock shelf. I managed to get in line with one of the girls, whose little sister was a few metres in front. Luckily, she was washed up onto the beach. She stood up, was crying out for her sister and started running for the water again, about to jump back in. I held my hand up. ‘Stay there! Don’t go back in the water!’ I shouted firmly and kept running. The rock shelf curved away from me, and I now had no other option, than leap into the channel. I jumped in and went straight onto my back with my feet up in front of me, ready to fend off rocks. The strong current carried me along quickly. I aimed for the other girl and waited for the right moment. We were almost at the mouth of the inlet, when the young girl hit a small sandbar which had formed. This slowed her down just enough. I rolled over onto my front and swam as fast as I could directly for her. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my body as I tore through the water. I reached out and managed to grab her by the shoulder. My feet hit the sandbar. I dug in and pulled her to shore. Out of breath and with my heart pounding through my chest, I turned to the other girl and gasped, ‘Are you ok?’
Glancing back I could see Matt dragging the man from the water, having already gotten the third girl out. I sighed with relief, knowing we’d been moments away from being swept out to sea.
With everyone safely back on land, but on two sides of the inlet, I walked the six and four year old sisters to a point where we could safely cross the water. To get the girls safely back to the other side, we had to walk some distance. I learned they were out with a family friend for the day. The rescued man was the father of the family friend who was also 6. Meeting up with Matt and the father there, I just stared at the guy and asked him what happened. He laughed and said, ‘The girls didn’t know what a current was. Ha! Ha! I guess they do now!’
I felt rage boiling up inside of me. This was my first experience of meeting a really stupid parent, like seriously stupid. One that shouldn’t be trusted with kids. I was about to blast him with a broadside usually reserved for misbehaving teens, when I looked down to see blood pooling in the water around Matt’s feet.
Turning my attention away from father of the year, I grabbed my towel wrapped it around Matt’s foot and applied pressure. There was blood everywhere and it was quickly seeping through the towel. ‘We need to get you to the hospital!’ I said. As it turned out, all this time, I’d been wearing my sneakers, but Matt had been wearing reef sandals. The rockshelf we’d run along had been covered in oysters and Matt’s feet had been sliced to pieces. Bundling him in the car, we dashed to Milton hospital and were seen quite quickly. After his feet were cleaned up, I could see the deep oyster filled slashes on his feet. The doctor dressed them and Matt’s one question was ‘Will I be ok to surf tomorrow?’
That was the last time I went fishing! Maybe next time, I’ll just go to the shop and grab some fish and chips!
Since there's an election going on I thought it was time to tell about the most interesting experience I've ever had in Parliament house. Pretty much everyone goes there for their year 6 Canberra trip. The kids are taken from place to place in the name of national discovery and of course, they eventually end up at Parliament. Now I've been to Parliament many many times. I've done work experience there, had dinner there, got lost there and sat in on countless budget nights and question times. All in all each experience was interesting, but all quite unremarkable. However, one day we took the year 9 boys from Scots down to explore the war memorial and attend question time. This experience turned into something entirely different...
It was a normal start to the day like every other time we'd been to Canberra. We wandered around the war memorial and then after lunch, we headed over to Parliament. As the bus drove up the awe inspiring driveway we could see a crowd gathered on the lawn opposite the main entrance. To put the story in context this was the time when Prime Minister John Howard had just committed troops to Iraq for the second Gulf War. So of course it was pretty clear that this crowd wasn't there to celebrate his birthday. There's nothing quite like taking a group of year 9 boys past an angry mob. Since this was the first contact they'd had with the outside world for several weeks, the air was electric with excitement.
Descending into the underground car park, there was a bus with a lot of well-armed police getting off it. This only added to the excitement and through trying to get the boys inside as fast as possible, I started feeling like the fireman standing in front of a burning building moving people on, saying there's nothing to see here. However, with a lot of coaxing, I ushered my group of boys inside and safely through security.
You could feel the tension in the air as there were far more security guards than I’d ever seen before. We led the boys upstairs and into question time. To say this was the most exciting question time I've ever been to would be quite an understatement. It wasn't what was going on in the chamber, it was what was going on in the public galleries that made it so exciting. There were protesters everywhere and despite all the security, there were no shortage of them in the public gallery. Whilst trying to supervise the boys and keep them from talking, I couldn't help but be totally distracted by the drama going on around us. Protester after protester jumped up yelling out over the balcony and into the chamber below. As soon as someone yelled something, they were grabbed by security and dragged out of the gallery. I sensed movement to my right. Glancing up there was a woman. She stepped forward, opened her mouth and cried out. Suddenly her body lurched back as two burley security guards dragged her away, hands awkwardly pinned behind her back. The boys next to me excitedly exclaimed, 'Sir did you see that?' I quickly put my finger to my lips 'Shhhhhh.'
This continued throughout question time and it looked like the speaker was about to close and clear the galleries. However, the politicians persisted with whatever they were doing and we kept enjoying the show that was going on around us. Question time eventually came to an end and all the politicians funneled out of the chamber. To think this was the end of the story, think again, it was only just getting started.
We were ushered out of the House of Reps only to find that we had our own security escort taking us to the hospitality section where we were to have afternoon tea and meet our local member of parliament. Halfway there I heard a voice come over the security guard's radio. 'They going for the front door!' All of a sudden there was a rush of security guards from all over racing towards the foyer. Our escort stayed with us, delivering us to the lounge area in hospitality. He told us to stay there until further notice, then promptly disappeared, no doubt to check out the riot we could hear downstairs.
Whilst being served a popper (juice box - not drugs) and a biscuit for afternoon tea we could hear the shouting, the yelling, the chanting and the commotion of it all. Smoke billowed up past the windows we were told to keep clear of, as flags burnt and the roar of the crowd intensified.
We were locked down in hospitality for over an hour before a security guard returned and said 'we've cleared a way out for you.' Throughout this whole time the noise of the crowd hadn't subsided and things were still in full swing! A number of other security guards had appeared and they divided us into small groups with one teacher and around 15 boys. I had a gappie with me too (an English guy named James, who was also finding this super exciting!) we almost killed him the day he arrived in Australia (our bad, but that's a story for another time). Anyway I was at the front of the group, James was at the back and we were led down the stairs and through the foyer. To our left were the massive glass door, on the inside it was spotted with parliamentary security guards. On the outside, was the police riot squad, vastly out-numbered and pressed up against the doors. The boys wanted to stay and watch (so did I, but our hosts seemed very keen to get us out of the building). I reassured the boys that we'd see something really exciting again and we didn't want to be late for dinner at McDonalds. Sadly many of the boys were more excited about McDonalds than what they were in the middle of right here right now. We cleared the foyer, were led to an elevator and crammed in. Silence gripped the lift as we descended towards the basement. One boy standing next James broke the silence with "Mmm sir, you smell really nice!" Everyone erupted with laughter, with the exception of the security guard who started yelling at everyone to shut up! Now this was weird, obviously no sense of humour, which is very important when dealing with kids, even when there's a crisis. I rolled my eyes as I was laughing myself. Being couped up for hours, this was the funniest thing that had been said all day.
The doors opened and we were in what appeared to be a service corridor. Gone were the grand and glamorous marbles and polished timbers. Now it was just Stalinist concrete. Very secure, very functional. The corridor led to another security station, which we passed through and were handed off from grumpy security guard to a much friendlier one who took us right up to the exit and out we popped in a carpark. The heavy security doors closed behind us, we could see our bus waiting as well as another riot squad formed, ready to charge up the stairs and take the protesters by surprise.
For getting 80 kids and 6 staff out of the building like that, it all happened so quickly. Counting the boys onto the bus and making sure we had everyone we were soon driving out away from the chaos. Smoke still plumed out of the crowd, which was now so large that it engulfed the entire entrance to parliament. All I can say, was that it was never a better time to visit our Federal Parliament for question time!
Ok! I’m going to preface this by saying that there’s been way more than just one weird encounter when I’ve had kids out with me on an excursion. I’d love to hear other people’s experiences too, so feel free to get in touch and share some weird moments, I can’t be the only one having fun out there on excursions. I won’t say 'wilderness,' because some of my strange encounters have been in the city. Having said that, this week, I will actually be talking about an encounter in the Australian bush!
A few weeks back I talked about running into random people who weren't quite prepared for their hike, this week is another one of those. This happened mid-October and I was leading what was called a parent hike. This was part of a year 9 program, in which the boys spent six months with us and faced a range of different challenges. I’ll talk more about that program another time, but back to the hike! The parent hike was an overnight trip where one of the boys’ parents came down and we took both parent and son away, the idea being a complete role reversal where the kids were looking after the parents! We’d been hiking in the hot spring afternoon. Having stopped for lunch at the top of a spur, we’d then descended the steep 300 odd metres down to the river flats. It’s quite a spectacular area and once on the water, it’s this amazing funnel of cliffs and narrow banks.
A View Towards The River Valley
Coming into camp, the parents were quite weary, most of them not used to the heat and exertion of the hike. I was at the front of the group with one of the boys, whose dad couldn’t make it, so I was fulfilling the role and had happily chatted away all afternoon. I was suddenly stopped in my tracks however, by a lady standing over a Trangia (camping stove) boiling water. It was more of the surprise of coming across someone in our camp ground more than anything else. It was rather remote and in the years of coming here, had never encountered anyone before. I politely said hello (thinking oh dear, we’ve just wrecked her night out with the forty people I had with me). She asked me where I was from and almost immediately following that asked me “What do you know about snakes?”
“I know a reasonable amount,” I replied. “What would you like to know?”
The lady look slightly relieved and proceeded to describe to me the colour, tones and features of a snake.
“Hmmm, that sounds like a baby brown snake!” I said.
“No it wasn’t a brown snake!” She curtly replied.
I did go on to explain that brown snakes do vary in colour quite a bit and given the area (which is known for its brown snakes), there was every chance that it was one.
“No definitely not a brown snake!” The lady reiterated.
“Ok, so have you seen one here at the camp site?” I asked.
“Well, it’s just that a friend of mine has been bitten by it.”
I looked around…
“She’s down along the river a bit, I’m just making her a cup of tea.”
“Oooh, that’s no good! Have you sent for help?” I enquired.
“Yeah, some of our friends are walking back out and we’ve wrapped up a t-shirt around her leg.”
I immediately replied with, “We’re first aid trained, we’ve got first aid kits with us and we’ve got a doctor with us.”
“No, it’s ok, she’ll be fine with a cup of tea!”
Inland Taipan - Deadliest Snake In The World! (Not The Snake In Question, But Looks Cool)
This is the first sign of weirdness. I can understand if they had first aid training, if they had communications, if they had a decent first aid kid, they’d be ok… But I wasn’t expecting that reaction. My concern was immediately the fact that if it were a brown snake, then the person who’s been bitten had about an hour untreated to get to a hospital! Not something I’d be comfortable with knowing the area, knowing the fact that it’s a two hour walk out and that once at the car park, it was a fifteen minute drive to get mobile reception! This picture was looking ugly, even though the tea was smelling rather nice.
I walked over to my group of parents and to the one who was a doctor for some advice. He was equally concerned and said to call the poisons unit at the Westmead Children’s Hospital in Sydney, get an ID on the snake and present this information to the lady. At the same time, we also offered compression bandages out of our first aid kids and literally forced them into the tea lady’s hand!
Reluctantly she took them. I know at this point many people would say, it’s not your problem as they’ve declined our help. However, with puzzled looks between myself and the doctor, we still had the feeling we should explore every possible avenue before leaving them to their own devices. Evening was fast approaching and the last thing we wanted to have to deal with was a body 200 metres from a camp full of kids and parents. At least we had someone who could call it… But we didn’t want that.
I made the call back to base on my radio, which had massive coverage throughout the area. I asked for an ID on the snake and gave full details of our location. Meanwhile, our doctor parent walked down, spoke with the lady who had been bitten and provided the offer of assistance to her directly. She thanked him and declined, saying that her foot was sore, but her friends had gone for help. Again 2hour walk! 15mins drive to get Comms. Meanwhile I was talking with base, who were on the phone to the poisons unit! I’m not seeing the logic in this, and even less when the poisons unit replied saying they think it was most likely a brown snake and you need to get the lady out of there as fast as possible!
Ok then… Now how do we approach this one? I thought about it as I walked down towards the lady who’d been bitten. I may as well just go with the honest blunt approach, that may upset her cup of tea, but I guess we could always make her another one. I did break the news in the most gentle way and said, "We’ve been talking with the poisons unit at the Westmead Children's Hospital and they’ve identified the snake as a brown snake. Because of that we believe it’s in your best interest for us to call emergency services for you."
She thought on this…
The seconds felt like hours as I kept glancing at my watch, calculating the time that had already elapsed. We’d burnt a lot of time. The one saving grace was the fact that she was at least somewhat relaxed (perhaps too relaxed about this).
Finally she spoke!
“Oh ok I suppose so!”
Bam! We had consent!
I felt a rush of adrenaline shoot through me, because we were now responsible for making sure this lady didn’t die.
My manner changed from negotiator to dictator. Back on the radio to base.
“I urgently need emergency services to figures grid 659483!” (not the real location) At this point I started recording everything I did in more detail. Glancing at my watch, I tagged the time of the call and started the timer.
Back to the lady, I clearly outlined the details of my call and their response. She then gave us consent to rewrap the shoddy bandage on her leg and we applied a proper compression bandage. We started to monitor her heart rate, which was elevated, but her being relaxed, was keeping this in check (lucky she had a cup of tea!)
Another glance at the watch to record my observations, a couple of minutes had passed. Continuing to reassure her, I could see some redness emerging and signs of envenomation. Now my heart rate was shooting through the roof.
In the distance I heard a mechanical hum. It was getting closer! The purr grew louder and louder. Suddenly, the Westpac Rescue Helicopter roared over our heads. You never realise how amazing and powerful these helicopters are until they fly over you just above the tree line! Checking my watch it had been 12 mins from when I gave the grid reference to when they flew over us!!!
About 2km Down River From Where This Happened
I’d organised my gappies (our young staff from overseas) minutes earlier to setup a ground signal for the chopper, given that there was nowhere to land in the valley. To give you an idea of the lay of the land, it was essentially a river, flanked by stunning sheer cliffs. I could see the pilot wave as he descended, hovered over the water with one of the skids just touching the land. A medic jumped out from the back and walked over to where we were. The helicopter roared back up into the air and flew with its nose down along the river a few hundred metres before it lifted up spun 180 degrees, back toward us, skid down on the river bank, collected the lady and the medic and they were gone!!! If you had blinked you would have missed this extraction. It was amazing in its speed and co-ordination.
The doctor and I stood looking at each other with relief!
“Well that escalated quickly!” I laughed to him.
We wandered back down to the camp site where the rest of the group were setting up tents. Back to camp leader mode, I checked on how everyone else was going and got started on setting up my tent.
That evening we chatted around the fire, a quiet and relaxing change from the excitement of the afternoon.
A few days later we received a call back at school from the lady thanking us for our help. It turned out it was a brown snake and she had been poisoned! All I could think was thank goodness we persisted and had good communications back to base.