Whenever you're running trips in the field, be it outdoor expeditions or sports trips, part of your planning should include someone who’s sole role is the safety backup person. Unfortunately, this is often an overlooked roll, or one that's totally under-estimated in its importance.
Whenever you're dealing with staff, students, vehicles and equipment, no matter how careful you are in the planning process, something could go wrong. When it does, you want to be able to respond quickly and effectively to contain the incident and mitigate any damage. If all your resources are tied up with the operation itself, then your ability to respond to unforeseen events is seriously compromised.
The process we used at one school I worked at was very effective. Staff were trained in emergency and crisis response management, had been on every single expedition we ran and rotated in and out of the safety office position throughout the year. This meant they always had their finger on the pulse as to what ‘normal’ operations should look like and they knew the local area extremely well, so when contingency plans needed to be enacted, they were able to form a swift and appropriate response.
The safety officer was the central command for all communications in and out to the groups. He monitored the group’s location, progress and knew of any specific needs of the group. All contact in and out was logged so there was a complete record of communication with the group.
Most of the time, this just meant the safety officer was sitting in the office and didn't have much to do. However, when something didn't go to plan, he was ready with a vehicle, comms and equipment to respond swiftly and in the most effective manner possible. No scratching of the head, no running around to grab supplies, they were ready to go immediately.
Why is it so important to have a person in this role? Why can't the person on the ground just deal with it? I've also worked for a school that thought this should be the case and their idea of someone on safety, was a person who was on-call on their day off, 2.5 hours drive away. Now I’ll let you be judge on how negligent this approach is. The reality is if you limit the resources to manage contingencies or not even have contingencies, then you seriously increase the risk of harm to staff and students.
The safety officer needs to actively monitor weather conditions, notify groups of any changes, or the issuance of extreme weather warnings. They need to remain appraised of other potential environmental hazards, such as bush fires, flash flooding, lightning, high winds, feral animal control or even other groups in operational areas.
I always enjoy the variety that this role brings. At times, it's a great way to have a quiet day in the office, simply checking weather, fire danger and logging communications. However, other times you're on the go all day, sorting out logistical and operational issues to smooth out daily activities, or occasionally taking a student to hospital (and sometimes a staff member).
The bottom line is that the safety officer is a vital, available resource that's ready to respond, provide additional support or effectively co-ordinate a larger scale operation in the event of an emergency or crisis. It's not just a cushy role for some inexperienced staff member to have a quiet ‘admin day’ in the office. You need to use your most capable staff because the difference that can make to the speed and effectiveness of the response, impacts significantly on the containment and mitigation of the incident.
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 reccie, 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.