In first aid training, it should be drilled into students more and more that Danger is the No. 1 consideration for First Aiders. It's often mentioned, but the massive importance of the issue is not always effectively addressed. Personal safety and personal protective equipment should be dominant factors in your decision-making process of, ‘To help or not to help!’ The tough reality is that if you're going to be at risk, then you always have the choice not to involve yourself. It's a hard decision, especially when you're trained and have a desire to help others, but sometimes it's the only choice possible if you’re going to end up in danger yourself.
One situation I found myself in where the danger to me proved far too great, was when I was in Colorado, in the US. I was skiing at Breckenridge, and coming down a home trail that links two of the peaks together, when a movement out of the corner of my eye caught my attention. I skidded to a stop. Glancing back I saw two figures scrambling desperately to get out of a creek bed next to the trail.
The first one popped up onto the side of the track. ‘Are you ok?’ I asked, seeing that he was a snowboarder.
‘Yeah, I'm fine,’ he panted.
He seemed distracted, turned back and scrambled towards the creek. I skated up and took a closer look. I could see his friend half way up the snow covered embankment, his head covered in blood.
‘Oh…’ I thought, suddenly switching modes and quickly assessing the area, the people and everything around me.
The guy who'd climbed out first was now becoming increasingly distressed.
I looked directly at him and calmly said, ‘Would you like me to call ski patrol?’
‘Oh yeah man… yeah… I need to get him out!’ he replied sounding confused and now appearing disorientated.
That was about the best indication I could get that this guy wanted help, so I called ski patrol and gave them a quick description of the situation and my location. At this point however, I’d only just seen the scrambling up, some blood and heard a bit of noise. I didn't quite understand the full extent of the injuries or anything like that.
As I got off the phone, I could see the second snowboarder grab the edge of the track and push himself up. I clicked out of my skis and stepped forward. Staggered to his feet, the snowboarder stumbled toward me. Taking one look, I stepped back. Blood was pouring down his face like a bubbling brook.
Taking another defensive half-step back I said, ‘My name’s David, I’ve called ski patrol and they're on their way.’
I got a mumbled somewhat confused response that at some point included an acknowledgement.
This whole time, I was still assessing the scene and evaluating the injured snowboarder. I'd determined the scene was safe. Given the mechanism of injury appeared to be snowboarding into a creek without a helmet, I wasn't that concerned about that happening to me. The next danger was that the snowboarder was now standing in the middle of a ski run and other skiers and snowboarders were riding past at speed. To manage this danger, after I took my skis off, I’d crossed them up hill from our location, so I was happy with the fact that I wasn't going to get hit where I was standing.
Next I moved to the human factor in my ongoing Danger assessment. I’d already determined that there was significant personal risk involved in providing First Aid. There was blood everywhere, I didn't know the person, he appeared to be under the influence of drugs and I had no personal protective equipment (gloves). This was too much danger for my liking and there was no way I was going to put myself at risk of a blood borne infection through providing assistance in this situation. At the same time, I also decided that I wasn't going to just walk away. I was going to be entirely ‘hands off’ as the casualty was at least able to do things for himself and help was on its way.
From a safe distance, I provided clear instructions to him and his friend, who was still wandering around in a panic. ‘Okay, ski patrol isn't far away,’ I said again to reassure the casualty. ‘What I suggest you do whilst you wait is just sit down on the side of the track and with your glove, press down on your head.’ I pointed to where I wanted him to sit, out of the way of others and demonstrated with my hand on my head to show him what I wanted him to do.
The blood kept streaming down the snowboarder’s face unabated, but there was little else I could or would do in this situation. He sat down and at least put some pressure on his wound. For at least 2 minutes, he was sitting there doing what I'd suggested he do.
This is where it became weird. His friend is still walking about in a panic and I was trying my best to calm him and reassure him. Then the casualty starts reacting to his idiot friend’s panic. ‘I've gotta get outta here man!’ he said.
‘Oh no,’ I thought. ‘Here we go!’
Now dealing with profusely bleeding drug tripping snowboarders isn't my idea of a good day on the snow, but I still had to try my best until I could hand this bloody mess over to ski patrol.
‘It's okay,’ I said again, ‘ski patrol is on its way. Just stay where you are, keep pressure on your head and you’ll be taken care of shortly.’
‘Nah, man I gotta go!’ he said, taking his hand off the head wound. Suddenly more blood streamed from his head as the pressure released. He proceeded to strap on his snowboard.
I tried reasoning with him some more, and when that didn't work, I tried reasoning with his friend. Not an easy thing to do with stoners! Dave definitely wasn't their man!
No matter what I tried, the guy was determined to go, so I certainly wasn't going to try and stop him. He skated off woosily, his friend chasing after him yelling, ‘You gotta see a doctor man!’
I quickly got back on the phone to ski patrol and explained the situation. ‘Do you know where he’s going?’ they asked.
‘No, sorry I don't know, but there's a pretty clear trail of blood leaving my location. Follow that and you're bound to find him.’
With that, it was the end of my involvement. Even though I provided some level of assistance, I remained completely hands off to protect myself from the clear and present danger. Having come across an injured person, I’d fulfilled my obligations under the skier’s code of responsibility, by stopping and calling ski patrol. However, in my assessment of the scene, the injury and the person involved, I’d decided very quickly during my initial danger assessment, I wasn't going to offer or provide first aid.
This can be a hard decision, as you're trained to help others in need. However, I've seen people rush in to situations and end up finding themselves covered with a stranger’s blood, which, even if you've only got a paper cut on your finger, could mean an infection. The last time I saw this happen, the person was a first responder to a car accident. He rushed in with another, started treating a casualty, no gloves, no danger assessment done at all. The irony was that there was a well-stocked First Aid kit with plenty of gloves in the back of the responder’s vehicle. If they had taken 60 sec to calm themselves, checked for dangers and put gloves on whilst they assessed the scene and its surrounds, they wouldn't have needed to go through the stress of a number of blood tests for infectious diseases. I can't stress enough DON’T DO THIS! If you're the first responder, your No. 1 priority is always to CHECK FOR DANGER! At the end of the day, you can't afford to put yourself at risk of harm and become the second casualty of the incident.
The world is changing at a rapid pace, an immensely rapid pace! Think about driving along the autobahn in a Trabant listening to lederhosen slapping tuba hits, then being overtaken by a McLaren F1 blaring hot new German dubstep from its 2000 watt stereo system. That's how rapidly the world’s changing! So why isn't education changing with it?
Despite the push for schools to innovate, the whole system remains stuck in the Industrial Age, churning out a steady stream of generic, and at times functional workers, but not always balanced individuals. Innovation is thrown around like a new political buzzword, about which everyone likes the sound, but nobody really knows what it means. Unless you understand the rapidly changing new world, what chance have you got to actually teach someone effectively to be able to not just cope, but thrive with that pace of change?
The reality of the dimensional shift is already here, yet the fact is that most people don't cope well with change and that's what technology has brought to the world. For better or worse, it's here to stay, so education needs to either deal with it quickly, or be content with falling further and further behind countries such as Kazakhstan on educational standards! I mean seriously! What’s with that? Kazakhstan!!!
I had the misfortune of being dragged back into an academic classroom for a few weeks this year, which only helped reinforce how much I hate this archaic process of learning and see little value in it. The highlight of my time was standing in a classroom basically watching students bash away at their computers to try and achieve exactly the same outcome as everyone else. I stood there thinking what's the point of all this? If I'm getting the same response from every student have they actually thought about what they're doing? Or have they just copied and pasted the information to achieve the tick box outcome? Herein lies the massive elephant in the room! (Actually, that would be really cool having an elephant in the room. When people always say that, I excitedly turn around to see it and I'm always disappointed. There never ever is a real elephant).
Basically, all schools have done, is stick with their ‘traditional’ teaching practices and to ‘innovate,’ stuck a computer in front of a student. I'm not saying technology is bad, because technology’s awesome. What's bad in this scenario is the whole learning process. Whilst much of this is set down by government (which is just a whole building full of rooms full of elephants), schools still have the flexibility to deliver content in ways that will challenge students and get them to start thinking for themselves, yet they don't. What actual problem solving goes on in traditional education? None! And this the problem and the key factor in clawing back our rank position from former Soviet block countries that are killing us in terms of educational standards.
The whole education system in Australia needs a push from real problem solvers to fix this massive problem that's more out of control than Miley Cyrus on a construction site. Why are we still using a system that’s solely focused on a massive end of year 12 exam or assessment so everyone can get a university entrance ranking? Considering 2/3rds of school leavers will never darken the door of a university, what's the point? It's vital we come up with a system that promotes initiative and develops real world skills for jobs, not just marks for exams.
Nationally, I know this is easier said than done. However, to start with, do something about it within your own teaching practices. Create some assessment methodologies that reward thinking and problem solving, not just pretty PowerPoint presentations. By starting to teach your students how to use initiative and adaptability, then you're already well ahead of the rest of the system that's still trying to get out of second gear in their Trabant. There may be a long way to go, but at the end of the day, you already have the power to make a difference in your students’ lives. Why not slam the peddle to the floor and use it!
The debrief is one of the most powerful teaching and learning tools you can use. However, it's either not used at all after a learning experience, or done poorly when the guide isn't sure what their objective is. For people who aren't familiar with the concept of the debrief, it's a post activity discussion that's designed to reflect on how everyone found the activity, how they might have been challenged by it and what they learnt from the experience. The aim is for everyone to be able to take a moment and self-reflect.
Once we can self-reflect, we can learn how to approach different situations in a more proactive manner and become far better equipped when faced with life's challenges.
The first step of the debrief process is to make the debrief setting comfortable and confidential. Often participants are confronted with a weakness or a failure in an activity. It's not all going to be capable people saying how well they did and how amazing they are and if this is the way your debriefs go, you're either working with infallible people or you're not asking the right questions. It should be made clear that anything said within the debrief remains within the confines of the debrief. That way, there's the potential for an increased openness of the participants to share and potentially be vulnerable in the process.
Next remove those who want to disrupt. This has rarely been an issue, but if it is, then you're better off without everyone. Some people will say the ones you remove are the most in need of debriefing skills. Maybe they are, but in my experience, they're usually the ones who have no idea and will just go through life disrupting everyone and everything they touch. I'm not here to suggest ways to save every single student. I am here to help those who are wanting to help themselves and who want to learn and grow from their experiences.
Now for the biggest challenge: ask the right questions! This is a difficult one, as every activity and every group is different. However, as an experiential educator getting a feel for the dynamics of the group and how they've coped or not coped with the activity, can help shape your thinking. If everyone found the activity easy, I'm not going to go in with a question about facing challenges. Conversely, if the activity was really hard, I'm not going to shy away from the fact people were pushed. So what do you want to achieve with a question? Again this is critical, if you've got nothing in mind and you just need to do a debrief because you were told you had to, there's not going to be much reflection happening here. The activity, the question and the goal must therefore all be linked together.
A fairly simple example of this is on one canoe trip, we were smashed with rain, like a massive amount of rain that was relentless. The conditions were not dangerous, just uncomfortable. The decision about to what to do was placed with the group. They wanted to leave the shelter we had under a rocky outcrop and continue. So we did!
We pressed on for another hour to reach camp, then everyone had to work as a team to get tents setup and a fire going as quickly as possible. That evening around the fire, we talked about decision making and team work. Not everyone wanted to go on. Some were happy with the shelter, but the students made the decision and we supported it. When we posed the question about the decision making process, the students who made the decision in the end had felt nervous about it, because they didn't know if it were the right decision. This led into a more detailed group discussion on decision making. What's right? What's wrong? Why do we second guess ourselves? How should our decisions be guided?
This discussion exposed some interesting group dynamics and it also showed how some were prepared to make decisions and take responsibility for the consequences. As one of them said, “Sure we got wet, but we made it to canoe safely and we’re not still stuck there under the rock.”
Everyone was exhausted that night and we could have just gone to bed. If we had, the group would never have had the opportunity to reflect on the day and the way in which they made some very mature and proactive decisions that resulted in the best outcome possible for the group.
Debriefs are a powerful learning tool and it's so important to both understand them and put them into practice for all your activities. The debrief shifts a ‘fun time’ doing an activity into a real learning experience, that provides huge educational value. The more you do this with your students, the more they will learn and grow as individuals.
Attitudes towards risk varies dramatically in individuals. Some people love extreme sports, others don't even like to change the channel on the TV. Whilst these are two extremes of the spectrum, we must manage risk in our own lives on a daily basis. However, what happens when assessing and managing risk is part of your work? How do we avoid diametrically opposed views on risk impacting on effective risk management?
Do we let the mathematicians do the stats for us and tell us why we can or can't do an activity? After all, statistically eventually everything happens! If we’re purely relying on statistics though, more young people die on our roads from vehicular accidents than anything else. The government then jumps up and down and says that they’re having a blitz on road safety, but this just means more speeding fines. It doesn’t deal with the core issue that young males are massive risk takers. What we need to be doing is dealing with core issues, not randomly managing the symptoms.
In any organisation, you want to avoid the extremes. This is especially when working in experiential education. You can have people there who are so risk averse, they don't want to leave the building. However, the far greater risk is the problem of staff who have the attitude, “Don't worry about it, it’ll be fine!” These people either don't understand how to manage risk, or they're so full of their own self-worth, they have the idea that it will never happen to them. Therefore, they don't need to do anything to manage risk, because nothing like that will ever happen!
If you have someone like this in your organisation, you need to get rid of them as they're a danger to themselves and everyone around them. This is worse than the ‘expert’ blind spot where someone fails to see risk due to their experience, as this person fails to see risk due to their lack of experience and lack of understanding. They will disregard anyone else's opinions too.
Not long ago I was running a canoe expedition up into the Shoalhaven Gorge. This is a magnificent area. Remote, pristine and rugged. It forms part of the Etrema Wilderness area and is accessible either by the lake, or by helicopter. Therefore, there’s little margin for error. We were about to set out on our journey when a flotilla of canoes came paddling in. It was a school group, most of whom weren't wearing life jackets and the staff seemed ill-prepared.
We briefly engaged in conversation with one of the teachers and he told us that they'd never been here before. They just hired some boats and canoed up until they found a campsite. I didn't ask what sort of safety equipment they brought. One of them was running around with a mobile phone, trying to get a signal. I informed him there was no point as the closest reception was 16km away. It would be silly for me to have suggested they use their satellite phone, but I did all the same, to which they replied, “No, we don't have one of those. We didn't know there wasn't any reception down here.”
I decided to explore this situation further and asked a few more questions. They'd only decided in the last week they were going to bring the group of kids out. It was a co-ed group with no female staff. They had done a recce, but it was in a completely different area and because someone had seen a snake there, they thought it too dangerous to go. I was totally gobsmacked by this, thinking that these are the sort of people who end up costing the taxpayers hundreds of thousands of dollars because they take no responsibility and end up getting into trouble, not being able to manage it and having to be evacuated.
I quickly realised I was talking to idiots and so I politely extracted myself from the conversation and went to do some final checks before we departed. Away we went up into the magnificent Gorge and paddled for almost three hours until we reached the campsite. I hadn't thought any more of that group until we were setting up camp. One of the boys threw a piece of paper onto the fire pit in preparation for the evening’s campfire. All of a sudden I smelt smoke… the paper burst into flames. As the paper burnt out, I put my hand over the top of the fire pit. It was still hot! The idiot teachers from the other group had done nothing to make sure the fire was out. It would've been at least 6 hours since they'd departed the site and the heat coming out was enough to reignite.
Thankfully I don't run into too many people like this, but it highlights such a lack of concern and understanding of risk. Did they even do a basic risk assessment? Even if they did, what was the point? This is a failure on so many levels of an organisation. To manage risk effectively, it means you need to develop a culture of risk management within the organisation. This doesn't mean become risk averse. It means working together as a team to proactively work out what real risks are and how they can be effectively managed. It's vital that you have an experienced operator providing oversight and not just a classroom teacher who's been promoted beyond their talents, or an in house lawyer who's never been outside of the office. These people might understand an aspect of risk, but don't know how it translates into the real world.
With the right leadership promoting an open and honest culture of risk management in which discussions can occur on a regular basis about risks, hazards, incidents and near misses, you ensure you set and maintain the highest of standards for the safe operation of all of your programs. It is through this culture of awareness that we can continue to run safe and effective programs.