How often do you review the programs you’re running and how they’re being run? Are there any specific activities which require specialised training, experience or knowledge? When it comes to experiential or outdoor education programs, there are often key activities which need specific training and or experience so they’re able to be run effectively, efficiently and safely. However, when one team member moves on, standards change or complacency creeps in, this can become a significant risk to your organisation and programs.
How often do you review your team dynamics and skill set? What are the strengths of your team? What are the gaps in your team? Can those gaps be amended through staff training or training courses? Do you have a system in place for constantly assessing and reviewing this?
To be clear, to begin with micromanagement of staff is definitely not needed here and can be massively counterproductive. However, the opposite is also true. If you have staff whose skills are never developed, reviewed or improved, this can lead to complacency, poor work and an ‘expert’ blind spot situation where everything will be ok, because it always has been. For your organisation, there needs to be a happy and effective medium for this. With no reviews or identification of key skills and experience, or the blind expectation that everyone has the same level of skill because you set a qualification as a minimum standard for employment, then you’re deluding yourself into a false sense of security and setting yourself up for problems down the track.
One place I worked, we had all field staff training as a minimum with a Cert IV in outdoor recreation. However, the skills and abilities of each member of staff varied enormously. Their ability to engage students in the group, their ability to setup ropes courses, expeditions and debrief activities all varied massively. Yet they all had the same qualifications. The potential risk in this situation is that you can’t simply allocate staff to activities without understanding their strengths and weaknesses in specific areas. However, the positive of this is that you need people with different and complementary skills to make it a fun and dynamic working environment.
That same organisation for which I was working, despite having gaps in training and skills, the team dynamics were really positive as the task and role allocations were done based upon those complementary skills. For example, I can’t reverse trailers. I try, but it never ends well. So one of my colleagues always reversed the trailer. Conversely, some of the team were squeamish with ticks, blood and open wounds, which I wasn’t, so I ended up removing all the ticks and patching up all the gaping open wounds.
At the end of the day, we worked well together. However, there were still gaps in skills and understanding of a range of things which caused a number of breakdowns in communications and challenges along the way. It’s therefore critical, even if things are running reasonably well, to review the skills needed to run the programs for which you’re responsible, as part of your ongoing risk management. So often people think of risk management as simply the documentation you’re creating. However, it’s far more than that and the skills and experience of your staff is critical to the way in which risk management is developed and implemented.
What are the strengths of your team? What are the gaps in their skills and what training do they need to help close these gaps? Often general risk management training is overlooked versus activity specific training. However, activity specific training, whilst it develops a great set of specific skills, is often the broader contexts of risk management that gets missed when we focus on one specific area. Hence, it’s important to keep this in mind when reviewing the training needs of your team.
Once you’ve been able to identify the gaps, then it’s important to provide opportunities for training, or on the job experience to help the team members to improve their skills in this area. This can make a huge difference to the safety and coherence of the organisation and the team dynamics.
External training is also critical to ensure that the right skills are being developed and being done in a way that’s also at arm’s length so that internal processes and procedures are also being challenged and tested to help ensure industry standards are up to date and being met. What are your gaps? If you haven’t reviewed where you’re at for a while, then it’s time to do so right now. Identify your skills’ gaps and ensure you get your team trained in each of those areas of need to ensure you’re running safe, awesome experiential outdoor programs for your students.
Catering is a really important part of your program. Any camp, school excursion or overseas school trip needs to have good food, with considerations made for any dietary needs. This could be based upon allergies, religion or preference.
The complexity of this can, at times, get a bit overwhelming. Some are justified, some are ridiculous and indulgent. The ongoing challenge is however, to ensure you push through the fact that some parents push stupid diets on their children and focus on the fact that getting the catering right for your critical needs students is vitally important.
For most students, it’s fairly clear and obvious that they’re a vegetarian, they can’t eat nuts or seafood or whatever the case may be and you simply provide this information to your camp catering team to sort out. However, it’s important not to set and forget this, as things can always slip through the cracks and when they do… you can have some of the most dangerous situations on hand.
On one program I was running, we were using a hardtop catered camp site for part of it. I walked in to have dinner and saw that it was a pasta dish with a tomato sauce. However, as I looked a bit closer, I saw some tiny prawns in it. I quickly looked around the room as this was not on the menu plan and one of our students was anaphylactic to shellfish. I spotted him down the back of the dining room, having just sat down to eat. I dashed down and immediately said not to eat the pasta. Despite being old enough to have some level or self-regulation, he hadn’t seen the prawns in the food. Thankfully, he hadn’t eaten anything and I arranged for another meal.
It turned out that the cook had a bag of spare prawns in the freezer and just thought he’d use that to ‘bulk-up’ the dish. The potential consequences of this could have been fatal. Even if you’re really careful with food allergies, it’s important that someone is monitoring this and not just ticking that box before the program and thinking it will have sorted itself out.
Another camp provider I was working with was completely dysfunctional and couldn’t understand dietary needs at all. This was obvious from the signs they had placed on the servery. ‘46 normal’. It wasn’t just the fact that they had odd signs, but then they hadn’t actually catered for any dietary needs at all, so the not-normal were given salad. I ended up having to go out at the last minute and buy some supplies because the caterers were so incompetent. Needless to say they were never used again. However, once again, if you don’t have someone actively monitoring this for your program, you can end up with all sorts of nightmares.
Even in-house, if you’re employing people who are supposedly well-experienced in food preparation and catering for school groups, this is no guarantee that things will go well. Once place I was working the cook (really couldn’t!) kept sending out meals raw. Now a raw hamburger is one thing, but when you have raw chicken breasts coming out for dinner, it’s obvious they’ve got no idea and time to replace them.
Whilst it’s often tempting for schools to contract out their camps to other people to organise and run for them, you’re still ultimately responsible for the health and safety of your students, so someone should be overseeing and observing meals, snacks and drinks throughout the day. In doing so, you can save yourself from far greater problems that can result from bad catering and a lack of attention to this part of your program. You don’t have to be over the top or hyper vigilant, but you do need to have your finger on the pulse as to what everyone is eating.
If some of your providers can’t cater, or the level of complexity of students’ food needs is too great for you to adequately cater for them, its important to have this conversation with parents and find an alternate solution.
In my experience. if you have someone who needs a specific brand or exact item from a gourmet food store, then it’s probably best to document in your program information that some cases might require self-catering. I’ve had this both for extreme allergies and extreme parenting. The extreme parenting and ‘fussy eater’ scenario aside, if you have serious concerns about major food allergies and triggers, then just work with the parents to provide the food themselves. We’ve done this on many occasions and have also provided separate cooking equipment for those students to ensure there’s no cross-contamination.
At times, this is a challenging part of running the program. It doesn’t have to be and putting those plans in place early, talking with parents and the students, as well as monitoring what’s being provided, will help ensure those catering nightmares are well and truly kept at bay.
A lot of people think more is better. The more information you have, the more documentation you have. The more plans you have, all make life so much easier, better and safer.
However, the reality is quite different. Ironically, the more information someone has, the harder it is to make an informed decision. I’ve seen risk management documents which run to 70 pages in length, which nobody is going to read for one, but also, even if you did read it all, there’s way too much information contained within those 70 pages for anyone to make a logical and informed decision. More is most definitely not better.
As humans, our brains can only take in so much info and analyse it before it gets overwhelmed. Too many possibilities become too hard to rationalise and think about logically and the more information and possibilities, the harder it is to respond and make any sort of informed decision.
This is why we see people in high stress situations make very poor decisions, which result in bad outcomes. It’s not the lack of information at hand. It’s too much. Instead of having reams of paperwork, which is supposedly there to help people run programs safely, you’re far better off to only look at key points of data to help you make a far more informed decision than the alternative.
Whilst this may seem counter-intuitive, the fact is that we’re not good at decision making as the stress level increases and the amount of information to analyse increases. We become myopic and our field of vision and understanding narrows. That’s why, sadly, so many coronial inquests on the surface seem so simple and straight forward. Why wasn’t this simple decision made at this point in time to prevent the fatality from happening? Chances are that there was too much information at hand.
We therefore need to simplify what we’re doing and how we’re doing it to improve our decision-making abilities. Nobody is going to read or even be able to use huge documents. They’re only really useful to lawyers post incident to spend more time than is reasonable for them to photocopy and read through so they can bill clients for it. Whilst that’s wonderfully profitable for lawyers, it’s actually not much help to you in the field.
How do you filter out the noise and get to the key information you need? That’s challenging, because each activity is situational. However, if you focus on your key risks and supervision responsibilities, then you’re well on the way to making good decisions. What’s the weather like? What’s the group dynamics like? What are the key activity risks? This is a great start. Also delegating responsibilities and positive team communications and dynamics, is a great way to reduce the burden of decision making on any one person to enable fast and effective reviews and analysis of the information at hand.
You often come across people who carry risk management documents on them as their way of effective risk management or responding if something doesn’t go to plan. However, this is problematic in that the time it takes to find something within that document that may be useful in a critical incident, is just time wasted in actually dealing with the issue at hand.
Whilst this doesn’t mean that this preparation is time wasted on developing good risk management systems, processes and documenting this, it does mean that you need competent people on the frontline running programs who can make informed decisions based on a reasonably small set of data. This takes training and practice, but if you realise that to begin with, the more information at hand, the more difficult it is to make informed decisions, then you’re well on the way to being able to more effectively handle stressful situations and incidents and come out of them with a positive outcome having managed and mitigated the situation at hand.
Therefore, don’t let yourself go down with myopic tunnel vision. Work out what’s important and filter out all the noise. Run some training scenarios and make sure you’re ready for whatever comes your way.
No you can’t do that! … It’s not safe!
This is the deafening catch cry of the fleet of helicopter and drone parents who put the apocalypse, now pilots to shame. Be safe! Take Care! Don’t do this! Don’t do that!
Stop! I wanna go home… take off this uniform and leave the show!
With such an increasingly large group of paranoid parents who don’t want anything to happen ever, unless it’s a participation award ceremony where the trophies have had their razor sharp edge buffed off, it’s difficult to know how damaging this will be over the long-run. But damaging it is and damaging it will continue to be for years to come.
In an attempt to make the world ‘safe and perfect’ for their wonderfully ‘perfect’ children, parents continue to cripple their kids into a false sense of security and confidence, or made them insanely dependent, depressed and anxious about the world. Either way, it’s not a healthy way to raise children.
Everyone learns and grows from taking risks, be they physical or emotional risks. If we don’t step outside of our comfort zone and do something, then we make little progress. We don’t learn from our mistakes and we’re unable to understand our true capabilities and grow as a result. Despite the world getting safer and being a far more stable place than it has ever been, for some reason, (probably social media driven) parents seem more fearful and paranoid about everything. They therefore aim to remove all risk and all potential challenges from their children’s lives. There’s just one massive problem with this. It’s insanely stupid and crippling for children and it increases the risk of harm to those children dramatically.
If you don’t know what it feels like to take a risk, then you have no way to gauge the level, severity or potential consequences of that risk. Teenagers struggle with this anyway, as their brains are wired to only seeing rewards out of any situation. However, couple this with absolutely neither perspective, experience nor understanding of taking risks, then you end up with an extremely dangerous combination of false confidence and the illusion of that everything will produce a positive outcome. This lack of experience and false confidence coupled with a parent who will never let a child take any risks, results in teenagers who will take completely unhealthy and dangerous risks with no thought of or perspective for the consequences.
However, if children are allowed to take risks, they’re going to injury themselves. They’re going to get dirty, scratched, knocked about, but each time this happens, they learn from this and develop a level of resilience. They gain understanding of what they’re capable and of what they’re not capable. They build a level of understanding of risk and from this are able to begin to self-regulate, because they know, if you jump out of a tree and land hard, this could result in a rolled ankle, broken wrist or something that’s unpleasant, but not exactly that bad.
We all learn best through our experiences, so those children whose parents don’t let them take any sort of risk, generally drive them to and from school no matter how close it is and don’t let them out of their sight ever. They don’t allow their children to develop a perspective or gauge for risk and consequently are more likely to take dangerous risks as all they have developed over the years is false confidence and nothing more.
Taking risks diminishes this false confidence and is critical to long term development so as children turn into teenagers, they’re far more switched on to identify real risks and approach them in a more responsible way. The next time parents ask why you’re doing this activity or that activity, have a positive conversation about the benefits of taking risks and growth in a great way from these experiences.