Establishing An Operational Management Plan

Operational Plan - Risk Management

An operational management plan is essentially the standard operating procedures for your program. Now I hate the term SOP, because it always feels like it's a set of rules that's written down, which ultimately guarantees that nobody ever reads it. So what's the point? Like anything involving people, logistics and risk, it needs to be a living, breathing process that all staff are part of. It has to be clear in the minds of all staff what the process is to run a safe and effective program.

With any experiential education, you need to have some very clear structures in place to both ensure the smooth operation of activities, as well as contingency plans if something goes wrong. Some organisations are obsessed with risk management plans and waivers, thinking this is all the planning they need. They've kept their lawyers happy and there's a document they can produce to prove they at least thought about something before leading the group into the valley of death. Well, there's quite a lot more to it than that and this is where many organisations go wrong.

You’d think it goes without saying that you need a plan, an itinerary, a schedule, risk assessment, student medicals, permission notes, or at the very least a class roll! However, I’ve regularly seen the focus of planning to be on only one or two of these components, rather than properly addressing them all. You must address them all! There's no point in having an itinerary and risk assessment written and not having the logistics and staffing in place to execute your plans.

You always need a functional end-to-end operational plan, that is flexible enough to handle multiple contingencies. Therefore, you need to plan for everything from the perfect operation to various “what ifs” for minor hurdles, emergencies and full crisis response. An effective response though has more to do with the staff’s mental state and ability to respond and adapt to a fluid situation, rather than a rigid written plan that's immediately forgotten when confronted with a complex crisis.

I've seen this done very well, but also extraordinarily poorly, especially when people aren't operating programs all the time and they feel they need to make things up as they go. There's a huge difference between being adaptable and making stuff up on the run. So one massive hint here, Don't Make It Up As You Go! Have a well-structured, executable plan that everyone’s part of that can be quickly enacted if something goes wrong.

What if the weather changes? What if an emergency happens? What if a crisis happens? Are you prepared to switch it up and respond quickly and effectively? I've seen some great written risk assessments where I have mused, ‘wow they've thought of everything!’ but then looking further on, no contingency plans nor any real idea as to how to manage an emergency or crisis.

Emergency Services

Emergency Services

It's Never Nice Getting Hit By This

It's Never Nice Getting Hit By This

I've seen and worked on programs (thankfully not run them) where the organisation had a ‘nothing will ever go wrong’ approach. This is where everything is done on razor thin staffing, based upon the idea that everything will go exactly to plan and I mean exactly to plan! The danger of this, is firstly, it's idiotic in the extreme. When you're dealing with groups of students and staff in different locations and involving vehicles and equipment, something could eventually go wrong. If you have no flexibility and adaptability factored in, then you're asking for a lawsuit and in fact, you deserve the horrendous experience of being dragged through the courts for your stupidity. I never felt safe, nor comfortable on this program. Thankfully, when I brought it to the attention of the organisation and they couldn't see the problem with it, I left and found another place to work that did.

This ‘razor thin’ notion, usually done to ‘save money,’ that works off the basis that everything will go exactly to plan, just increases the pressure, stress and fatigue on staff, which adds to the inevitability of something going wrong. Philip of Macedon (Alexander The Great’s father) put it very nicely. ‘No plan survives contact with the enemy.’

So with that in mind, here's an outline of how I develop an operational management plan:

  1. Establish a clear well-formed plan and ensure staff are briefed on it.

  2. Ensure you have sufficient staff to student ratios for the activities and have factored in a ‘margin for error.’

  3. Ensure you have backup available if something does go wrong, so the rest of the group can continue without disruption.

  4. Have student permissions, waivers and medicals submitted in a timely manner to ensure adequate time for review, assessment and contingency planning.

  5. Ensure medical conditions are worked into the plan and any specific needs met with tailored contingencies and action plans.

  6. Develop the risk assessment in conjunction with all your staff so they’re not only aware of risks, but actively contribute to the planning and mitigation process.

  7. Note nearest emergency services and ensure contact and communication in some form is readily available (mobile, sat phone, radios, EPERB). NB: When running programs in remote areas, I also directly notify Police, Ambulance and National Parks of our plan.

  8. As part of the plan, ensure staff are briefed on contingency plans and are clear on strategies for managing any issues that fall outside ‘normal’ operations.

  9. Ensure you have a clear point of contact for safety backup and management of anything that's outside of the ‘normal’ plan. There must be an experienced and capable staff member who’s prepared and ready to respond quickly if needed.

  10. Have set check-in times when each group makes contact to provide a brief update and weather forecasts or any other information that can be conveyed back to the group.


If you plan around these 10 steps, then you're well on the way to having a safe, enjoyable and rewarding experience for everyone involved.

Victoria's War On Everything!

Play Ball Games - Risk Management

Recently, a Victorian primary school placed a ban on students bringing balls to play with in the playground, citing an increase of injuries as the reason. Whilst I’m sure this isn't the first to ban balls, it's an idiotic and irrational decision to say the least. In terms of managing risk, unfortunately, it’s a sad reflection on a complete lack of understanding of the complexity of education, the need for students to understand risk and take reasonable risks to help them to understand how to actually assess and manage risk.

To put a blanket ban on something such as balls, robs students of some great social play activities. So instead of playing handball, cricket, basketball, soccer or dodge ball, instead bored students look for other less sociable pursuits. Having worked in a number of boarding schools, I’ve seen first hand what can happen when bored students start trying to find their own things to do to entertain themselves. It tends to result in far less social behaviour and can result in bullying to develop purely out of boredom.

Consequently, you can stop everyone from doing everything for their ‘own safety’, but you’re likely to create bigger problems than that of balls and a few minor injuries which are just part of life’s knocks and scrapes and are extremely healthy for children to have. Having said that, too many blows to the head with a football might need checking out.

The reality is that life’s not free of risks and trying to ‘eliminate’ any form of risk possible within the school environment is ludicrous and only setting students up for more significant failure in the future. Whatever the mistaken belief is for something such as a ball ban at school, it’s counter to any basic educational principles and is failing the students it’s supposedly designed to be ‘protecting.’

The world can sometimes go crazy when it comes to supposedly ‘managing’ risks. Often it’s a knee jerk reaction to an incident that doesn’t take into consideration other longer-term factors or specific incident circumstances. If you end up with a pattern of injures for whatever the activity is, then review it, but look for other options outside of blanket bans. What level of supervision was being provided? What level of first aid training and experience do staff have? Is it one ball activity in particular or everything? Did a teacher get hit with a ball by accident and has now had an hysterical meltdown? Yes things like this do happen. One place I worked had a ban on playing on the grass, because they wanted the place to ‘look nice’, which was never going to happen cause it was built on a misquote infested swamp, but anyway, the ban led to it becoming impossible to adequately supervise students with the staff we had and led to more problems and injuries because the boys spent the whole time spread out over a campus rumbling with each other. This was pure idiocy in my opinion!

Before someone throws a blanket ban out there on something fun, sociable and educational with the mistaken belief that they’re ‘saving’ everyone from themselves, then they should consider the wider implications and the potentially far greater negative impact that their decision will have on students. Managing risk is not about banning things. It’s about weighing up a series of competing factors which include the educational value of the activity, the risk of allowing the activity to occur and how it is to be supervised, as well as the risk of taking the experience away from students. Often people mistake the management of risk with their idea that they must stop everything from possibly ever happening to anyone. That’s just pure idiocy and something which fails to take into consideration how children learn from their playtime experiences and how keeping children actively engaged in an activity they love doing, will help build confidence, skills and social skills.

Before the fun police get away with banning the next cool activity at school, remember, ‘If you can dodge a spanner, you can dodge a dodge ball!’

Kids Perception Of Risk

Risk Management Photo

I've touched on the topic of kids’ differing perceptions of risk before. However, it's not a one off issue that can be easily dealt with. It's an ongoing concern that requires constant attention, as the adolescent brain doesn't perceive risk in the same way an adult brain does.

To highlight this point, on my recent visit to the US, I was struck by this problem at a bus stop. I was in Park City, which is in the mountains in Utah and to say it was cold would be an understatement. It was around -20 deg C. The late afternoon air bit viciously every time you drew a breath. I was rugged up in two layers of thermals plus another four layers on top of that.

I'd just been shopping for some supplies for dinner. Walking along the pavement, I noticed two teenage girls huddled together at the bus stop. I could see they were shivering and not wearing much at all. They each appeared to be wearing some leggings (tights or something like that) and a light top. With their teeth chattering, they were debating if they should keep waiting for the bus or go inside and risk missing it.

Listening in for a few moments. It became apparent that they'd ducked out of the house to quickly go to the shops and didn't think they’d need a jacket (or pants). At this point I started thinking about Darwin’s theory of natural selection, but I quickly dragged my mind back from this. I rustled in my pocket and thankfully it was still there. I had a pair of hand warmers which I'd taken with me up the mountain. Once it hits below about -5, I like to keep my hands warm.

Pulling them out, I offered them to the girls. They thanked me and grabbed the hand warmers. Clutching them in their hands, they then hugged them close to their pale faces. Another five minutes went by. I chatted with the girls to try and keep their mind off the cold. They sounded increasingly despondent as the bus was running late.

“Why don't you duck inside over the road?” I said, pointing to a restaurant opposite. “I’ll signal when I see the bus.” The girls looked at me, looked at each other, then the restaurant. It was an easy decision. They dashed across the road and into the warmth of the building.

Another 10mins of waiting in the freezing cold and the bus finally arrived. I waved to the girls, who ran over and jumped onto the heated bus. Huddled together at the back, still shivering, that was the last I saw of them.

Whilst I'm sure they were ok in the end and I did ask if they were ok to get home, it does highlight a serious problem with teens’ attitudes towards risk. I see it time and time again with activities I run, be it skiing, mountain biking, canoeing, hiking, whatever the case may be. I’ll see a student without a helmet, without a jacket, no PFD and when you challenge them on it, you get the excuse, ‘but it's only just…’ and therein lies the problem. The idea that (in the girls’ case) it's only just down the street, (so I won't need a jacket), unfortunately follows through to everything else that teenagers do. They have this complete lack of awareness to risk. This is different from risk taking behaviour where they're seeking our risky activities. This is just a total lack of forethought. Everything in the adolescent brain is purely focussed on reward, or the outcome. It's not worried too much by the details in between.

Whilst all of this poses a massive challenge for a teacher from a risk management point of view, it also provides some great learning opportunities too. I don't mind when kids do things like this (within reason), because it teaches them a valuable lesson. For example, one ski program I worked on, we spent a lot of time briefing and preparing the kids for the first day. However, no amount of clear instruction will ever be enough for some people. They need to experience everything first hand.

With snowboarders, one of the most frequent injuries that occurs, is the broken wrist. To counter this, we instruct all our snowboarders to wear wrist guards. Most do, however, one boy in 10th Grade, it being the first time he'd ever snowboarded, decided not to wear them. It was the first run of the first day of a 10 week program. He slipped, fell forward, put his hand out, landed on his wrist and broke it. I asked him, when we got to the medical centre, ‘Where were your wrist guards?’
‘Umm… I had them on me!’ he said defensively. ‘They were just in my pocket!’
I looked at him and I'm pretty sure he knew what I was thinking, ‘so what valuable lesson do we learn from this?’ I said rhetorically.

Even though, as teachers, we go to great lengths to manage all sorts of risks, we can never underestimate kids inability to perceive risk in the same way adults do. Even though the ‘only just’ excuse frustrates me to no end, it provides a great learning opportunity through debrief and reflection.

As a result, we need to use these opportunities where kids disregard risk and ignore their own safety, not as disciplinary issues, but as learning experiences. It's not about getting someone in trouble to prove that you're right. It's about giving them the opportunity to reflect on what they did, or didn't do and what happened as a result, in such a way that they can learn from the mistake and not repeat it in another more critical or dangerous context.

Three Elements Of Risk

Risk Management Photo

In every outdoor activity there are countless risk factors that must be considered and effectively managed to ensure safe operations and enjoyable experiences. Whilst it's easy to get overwhelmed by the idea of risk management and the enormous task of trying to think of every risk possible, from falling tree branches to unprovoked possum attacks, generally in outdoor ed, risks fall into three main categories. These create a nice triangle which could be used on a pretty PowerPoint presentation, for the world dominating purposes of the illuminati, or to make lots of money mysteriously disappear into places such as Bermuda. Whatever the case may be, the three components which make up the triangle are:

People Risks
Environmental Risks
Equipment Risks

Again, broadly speaking, a failure of one of these area is problematic, but manageable. A failure of two of these areas is dangerous, as the ability to effectively mange the situation seriously diminishes and failure in all three could be catastrophic.

Over the years, I've experienced some interesting situations where one of these areas of ‘normal’ operation becomes compromised. For example, when environmental conditions have unexpectedly turned for the worse, I've found myself in the middle of storms, freezing cold nights, ragingly hot days, white outs, blizzards and everything in between. However, each and every time the situation hasn't been a problem. It's not only been manageable, but it's also been character building for those involved. So why's that?

If the environment itself is the only failing component of the risk triangle, it means you have the right equipment and people are following instructions appropriately, therefore you're just experiencing discomfort, rather than anything else more serious. As a result, the discomfort can provide great learning experiences for the group and not adversely impact on safety.

I will however, qualify something at this point, because someone’s bound to say, ‘What about lightning?’ Let’s take lightning out of the mix for the moment, as getting caught in a thunderstorm is dangerous no matter how you look at it. Supercharged bolts of electricity randomly shooting down from the sky is something you really don't want to be in, especially if you've upset Zeus, Thor or …. at some stage in your life. If you have upset any of these mythical gods for some reason, basically you’re on your own from here on in.

Excluding the wrath of angry gods and severe storms that should be picked up by your weather monitoring practices, getting caught in bad weather is not generally dangerous. However, let's see what happens when we throw a spanner in the works and another component of the triangle becomes compromised. For example, inadequate or poor quality equipment!

On one trip I was leading many years ago, it was late winter and had been raining all morning. We were running a program in the southern highlands of NSW. The hike was around 8km and the forecast was for more light showers. On the surface, not a problem. However, during the lunch stop, we decided to do an equipment check, as most of the students were wearing cheap useless ponchos that their parents had misguidedly bought them to ‘save’ money. This sort of thing will last two minutes in the bush and be torn to shreds in no time at all. You may as well not bother and you’re better off spending that money on an overpriced coffee, as it will have more of an effect on your comfort and well-being than the rubbish poncho. Despite the inadequate rain protection, this wasn’t the major issue, as the most important thing for the students to have was their thermals. This was on their packaging list, but untrusting of the parents and their poor decision made on the rain gear, we thought it best to double check. The result was three pairs of thermals were being carried out of 28 students! This was without a doubt an Epic Fail!!!

Suddenly, we had two components of the risk triangle in play and actively compromised, so our risk profile just shot up dramatically! Hypothermia was at the forefront of my mind and the fact we didn't have any vehicle access to the area only added to this. Given the poor quality of equipment, the lack of essential clothing and the potential for students to be carrying useless summer sleeping bags, we had two options. Accept the high-level of dangerous risk involved with continuing, or modify the plan… Needless to say, we modified the plan, extended the day trip and returned to base.

In stark contrast with this, another trip I led, we were completely smashed by rain, far worse than anything we had experienced the day we had to pull the pin, but the difference was that everyone had thermals and was wearing Gortex jackets. With no epic equipment failure, the situation was uncomfortable for everyone, but completely safe to continue with as planned.

Importantly, the way these three components interact with each other is the determining factor for the real level of risk with which you're working. Many risk assessment schemes fail to take this into account and are focused on writing everything down, but without the understanding of how risk may increase as one or more of these components become compromised or fail. However, it's critical that this is understood and is factored into the risk assessment and management processes and practices for the organisation.

This brings us to the People component of the risk triangle! Unfortunately, there’s no material safety data sheets, engineering limits or forecasts when it comes to people and how they’re going to act, react and behave in any given environment or situation. Even though it’s the most unpredictable and complex factor in the risk triangle, it’s often the least considered and most underestimated. There’s no shortage of stupid people in the world. In fact, many people excel in this area every day of the week and should certainly not be trusted with open flames or power tools, or anything without smooth edges.

The problem is that when you're responsible for people like this who are unpredictable, or taken to doing idiotic thing, it's vital that you watch them and actively manage them. Unlike finding a faulty or damaged piece of equipment and replacing it with a new one, the people risk is far more emotive and complex.

If you can exclude a student from activities who simply will not listen or engage, that could be the best solution as they drag everyone else down with them. However, often schools are reluctant to take definitive action and sadly, sometimes as leaders, we’re stuck with a compounding people risk until their idiocy negatively impacts on the group and someone higher up in the organisation suddenly realises that what you said in assessing the participant risk has now come true. This is not a situation you want to find yourself in and it’s worth having good behaviour management strategies in place, such as higher staff to student ratios or modified programs when the people factor has the increased potential for producing adverse risk to the staff and the group.

As with any other individual component of risk, behaviour alone isn’t necessarily critical and with a good leader more often than not, like every other risk factor in isolation, is not a major concern. However, throw in a bit of bad weather, forget or misuse some vitally important piece of safety equipment and you’re now shaping up for some major issues.

When you’re reviewing your risk management systems it’s well worth considering the interaction of these three components in the context of your organisation and how you can best address them when running any sort of program. Being aware of how the level of risks escalate as one or more are compromised, will help you to build far greater situational awareness. This keeps your risk management practices alive to ensure safe operations and great educational outcomes.

No Parents In The Learning Area

Skiing - Outdoor Education

On a visit to the US I took some time out to go skiing in Park City. It's a fantastic resort and an awesome historic township. It now even has an Australian run café, which meant I could have a decent coffee (all the important things being from Australia). I’d prepared myself to go a month without decent coffee, reliant on bitter or burnt espressos as a backup plan. I was however, pleasantly surprised to find myself standing in front of a recognisable Australian business and safely drinking a good cup of coffee.

Despite this extremely important tangent, what follows has nothing to do with coffee. It was early in the morning on a crisp crystal clear day over on the Canyons side of the resort. I was skiing past the ski school when a sign caught my attention, “Please, No Parents In The Learning Area!”

I laughed, as I knew exactly why there was a need for something like this the moment I saw it. Whilst it's very important for parents to be involved in their child’s education, there's a right way to go about it and a wrong way to go about it. More often than not, parents, generally through a lack of understanding go about things the wrong way and many of them constantly insert themselves into situations where they should just stand back and allow others to teach.

From what I’ve seen over my years of involvement with education, Helicopter & Tiger parents, need to relax, find themselves a hobby that doesn’t involve them living vicariously through their children. Whilst the underlying belief these parents have is that they’re ‘helping’ and making sure they get the ‘best’ for the child, the reality is that they’re doing more harm than good and wasting their own life and opportunities at the same time.

It’s probably easier to remove the salt from the ocean than it is to remove the helicopter from the parent, but seriously, they need to back off and let their kids breathe and experience a few things in life for themselves. This doesn’t mean that everything should be done at arms’ length, but I can understand the need for the sign as over-involvement of parents can be just as bad, or even worse than under-parenting.

I realise it is a challenging balance, but if you look at it from a work point of view, how would everyone feel if someone went from department to department telling everyone how their job should be done. From marketing, to finance and the janitorial services how would everyone feel if your clients hung around giving instructions on how their work should be done? It wouldn’t be long before security was called and the person was ejected from the building.

I would have thought the whole point of taking your kids to ski school is so that you could ski somewhere awesome yourself. Hanging around offering suggestions or taking photos would be the last thing on my mind. I would have ditched the kids and headed up the closest double black only lift. Ski school and school in general is a great sort of child minding service, which hopefully employs talented instructors and teachers who will be able to care for your children and teach them something far more effectively than you can. This, of course, eventually pays off later on, as you’ll be able to ski with your kids, until they get way better than you and then leave you for dead, suggesting perhaps you should go and have some lessons.

However, from this the most important thing is that sometimes parents need to be able to step away from a situation and allow their children to be taught by others. If they’re not prepared to do that, then why not teach them everything they need to know themselves? This would seem to be preferable for many parents, until they realise the reality of how much time, energy, experience and effort goes into teaching others.

At some point, parents must let go and if they haven’t by high-school years, then the damage they’re going to do over the proceeding years is significant. Again this doesn’t mean parents should have no involvement, but appropriate experiences should be looked for where that increasing independence can be gained. Some effective programs I’ve worked on have been medium and long-stay residential programs, in which there was little choice for those helicopter parents but to stay away. If medium and long stay programs aren’t an option for your school, then perhaps erecting a barrier near the entrance is the next best option. At the end of the day, it will enable students to have a far better educational experience than the endless hovering could ever provide.

For me, as I said, I’d just leave them at the ski school and allow them to try new things, slip, fall and get back up again all by themselves. It’s the learning through these experiences that make the best skiers and the snowboarders, not the manic parenting and suggestions from the side. Perhaps, as in Park City, a giant sign is just what’s needed for all of our programs to remind parents of the fact that it’s time to let go a bit and let their kids do something a bit ‘risky’ for themselves.