The contingency plan is one of the most vital things to have as part of your overall excursion management plan. I can't stress enough how vital this is, as well as the ability to be flexible with it. Often when things are going wrong, there's usually not just a simple straight forward option for plan B. So it's good to have plan C & D up your sleeve just in case, to ensure you’re never cornered into thinking there’s only one alternative!
The reality of taking kids anywhere is that things happen. No matter how well you plan, something can come out of left field, like bad weather, vehicle breakdowns or random acts of God, which can often be hard to predict and can escalate quickly. Recently we had one such program where every which way we turned it was one chaotic weather front after another. It got to the point where we had multiple contingency plans for every single day! If one didn't work or was unfeasible, then we were ready to with the next one! Throughout the program we were constantly using C, D & E. Whilst there’s no real value going into the details of each and every plan that we had to work around and how or why they each did or didn’t work, the key issue here is about the ability to change and adapt, which’s the most important thing.
If you ever end up reading serious incident reports into accidents on excursions, there’s a pattern that emerges each time. It usually starts out with a poor decision being made about weather, an activity, the skill level of a group or leadership abilities. This is usually followed by a second poor decision, which starts the unravelling process towards the ultimate major trauma that occurs. What often becomes glaringly obvious when reading the report is that there was no contingency plan! So what happens if things don’t go to plan? Well, don’t force the issue and try to make everything work for the sake of it! Regroup, rethink and adapt. This will let you and your group do another activity safely and not end up facing an inquiry.
When planning your excursion and assessing the risk profile, make sure you build in a Plan B & C if things don’t work out. Then if you have to enact a secondary plan, be flexible in its application and simply cancel if need be. At the end of the day the safety and well being of the group, far exceeds the need to just do an activity!
Working in risk management, this is one of my biggest concerns and ongoing frustrations. Why don’t people take action, manage and reduce risk until it’s too late? Far too many schools and organisations wait until they’ve had a major incident to ensure they have systems in place and the right people in place to manage risk.
Why is this? Are we all wired to think that everything is going to be ok and run exactly to plan? Is it the unconscious incompetence that comes with being new to something? Or is it not really caring?
To be honest, I really don’t think it’s not caring. Generally, people are in education to help others achieve goals and consequently tend to care about what happens as a result. However, the focus of teaching and teacher training is on classroom practice and although many lessons don’t go to plan, there’s not really a need to mitigate against this risk other than to make sure you plan your lesson. Yet when planning an excursion, trip, activity or sport outside of the classroom, the same level of preparation rarely goes into it.
The problem is that the management of risk and the actual risks inherent to the activity, excursion or sport is rarely understood, especially if the main focus of someone’s training and employment has been unrelated. Just because someone can teach and manage a group in the classroom, doesn’t mean he or she can facilitate and manage a group in an unstructured and unregulated environment. The result of this usually ends up with most things going to plan, but when something doesn’t, it can go pear-shaped very quickly and generally when this happens, the response is just made up as they go. This can exacerbate a problem or an incident and needlessly escalate it, which can result in further damaging consequences for staff and students.
Once a teacher, administrator, school or organisation has gone through this experience, they then suddenly start to think about risk management in a meaningful way. However, this is too little, too late. The horse has already bolted and it’s not coming back.
The first school I worked for unfortunately had to go through a fatality for them to realise that they had a risk management problem. I was one of the new staff employed after the fatality and the fall out from this lasted for years for some and a lifetime for many others.
Whilst a fatality is thankfully a very rare occurrence, there’s many other incidents which still regularly occur that are completely preventable. There’s enough knowledge, experience and technology available to prevent so many incidents from occurring year, so why don’t people do anything about it until it’s too late?
More often than not, it’s what’s referred to as unconscious incompetence. You don’t know what you don’t know. How can someone be expected to manage something, if they have no idea about what they’re managing nor why they’re supposed to be managing it.
All programs and activities start with good intentions to create great educational outcomes. However, good intentions don’t always translate to good management. Therefore, specific training is essential in general risk management for school activities, sport and excursions, as well as more focussed individual activity risk management training. This sort of initial training helps move people from the unconscious incompetence, to the conscious incompetences skill level and can be quite confronting and eye-opening for most people. Suddenly, they realise the holes, gaps and risks in the programs for which they’re responsible and start to do something about it.
Experience and further training at this stage then moves a person from this conscious incompetence stage into the conscious competence stage. At this point, the person understands risks, controls them and continues to actively manage and work towards risk management goals and develop a culture of risk management within their organisation. It’s at this point you actually get good risk management systems operating within schools and organisations to ensure quality practices are always in place and being used to run great educational programs with the risks minimised.
The final stage persons is unconscious competence. Essentially, they understand a whole range of risks and actively manage them without thinking. If you don’t have anyone in your school or organisation like this, with this skill set, then you’re just treading water before something terrible happens. This shouldn’t be the case as again, there’s enough knowledge, experience, training and technology available to ensure risks are well managed within any organisation.
It’s way too late to do this after something has failed and you can be assured that dealing with a crisis and the fall out from that is far more difficult than a bit of training and implementing good risk management systems.
To avoid the inevitable train wreck of a situation in which lives, careers and reputations are damaged, get some risk management training today so you can build and leverage the right systems, processes, equipment and technology to consciously and competently manage risk within your school or organisation.