Planning A School Ski Trip?

A quick overview of some of the risk considerations when taking a school group to the snow. For the industry leaders on snow safety, head to http://snowsafe.org.au

Having worked in the snow sports’ industry for many years, both in Australia and overseas, I love being up in the mountains. It’s a great place for students to have a unique, challenging and rewarding experience doing something very different from their regular schooling.

However, with every trip away there are some significant issues you and your staff need to be aware of. Here’s a few great resources to help get you started on your trip planning!

General Snow Safety www.snowsafe.org.au/

Ski Resort Info

Thredbo - https://www.thredbo.com.au/schools/

Perisher - https://www.perisher.com.au/plan-your-trip/groups/2019-school-groups

Falls Creek - https://www.fallscreek.com.au/schoolgroups/

Mt Hotham - https://www.mthotham.com.au/discover/more-options/groups/hotham-school-tertiary-groups

Mt Buller - https://www.mtbuller.com.au/Winter/plan-your-visit/schools-and-groups


Happy Skiing! I hope you have a great season!

What's A Current?

Narrawallee Beach

Narrawallee Beach

Whilst much of what I’ve written about so far is about risk management and working with teenagers in the outdoors, it gets way more complex when you add in the adult factor, especially when the adult factor has less awareness about the dangers of the outdoors than their own children.

This story goes back quite a few years. It started with a fishing trip and finished with a trip to hospital. This was also the last time I went fishing, not because of what happened, but I just don’t like fishing. It was the summer holidays and I was staying with my parents at their house near the beach, south of Sydney. It was a warm sunny day and a friend of mine called to see if I wanted to go fishing with him. As I had nothing else pressing on my agenda of sleep-ins and body boarding, I thought, why not?!

We headed down to Narrawallee Inlet, which is a beautiful estuary at the northern end of Narrawallee Beach. It’s a great spot for fishing, as you can stand next to the deeper channel on the rocks and safely fish without a boat. We positioned ourselves on the rock shelf on the corner of the channel as it turns, narrows and heads out to sea and cast our rods ready for the exciting wait until a fish decided to take a bite.

A Much Calmer Day At The Inlet - Rock Shelf To The Right, Buckley's Beach To The Left

A Much Calmer Day At The Inlet - Rock Shelf To The Right, Buckley's Beach To The Left

We’d been there for some time and didn’t really catch much, other than a leather jacket, which we threw back. It was late morning and we were both getting pretty hungry and so were about to head home for lunch, when we noticed something in the water. To explain how the inlet works, there’s a big body of water, a deep channel and a beach on the opposite side of the channel. Many people like to swim in the large body of water and float with the current in the inner channel, before it gets to the corner of the beach, speeds up and shoots out to sea. It’s a lot of fun to do on the inner channel inside the inlet… if you’re familiar with it!

Back to the fishing! We noticed four people, some distance away floating along in the current in the inner channel. As they drifted closer, we could see they were three young girls and one older man, who appeared not to be doing anything to get themselves out of the channel as they approached the corner where we were standing. They seemed to move faster and faster! Matt and I glanced at each other, knowing what each were thinking. ‘Oh Crap!’ They weren’t going to stop! The kids hit the corner and were swept effortlessly by the current into the main channel. Simultaneously, Matt and I dropped our fishing rods and started running along the rock shelf. I managed to get in line with one of the girls, whose little sister was a few metres in front. Luckily, she was washed up onto the beach. She stood up, was crying out for her sister and started running for the water again, about to jump back in. I held my hand up. ‘Stay there! Don’t go back in the water!’ I shouted firmly and kept running. The rock shelf curved away from me, and I now had no other option, than leap into the channel. I jumped in and went straight onto my back with my feet up in front of me, ready to fend off rocks. The strong current carried me along quickly. I aimed for the other girl and waited for the right moment. We were almost at the mouth of the inlet, when the young girl hit a small sandbar which had formed. This slowed her down just enough. I rolled over onto my front and swam as fast as I could directly for her. I could feel the adrenaline pumping through my body as I tore through the water. I reached out and managed to grab her by the shoulder. My feet hit the sandbar. I dug in and pulled her to shore. Out of breath and with my heart pounding through my chest, I turned to the other girl and gasped, ‘Are you ok?’

Glancing back I could see Matt dragging the man from the water, having already gotten the third girl out. I sighed with relief, knowing we’d been moments away from being swept out to sea.

With everyone safely back on land, but on two sides of the inlet, I walked the six and four year old sisters to a point where we could safely cross the water. To get the girls safely back to the other side, we had to walk some distance. I learned they were out with a family friend for the day. The rescued man was the father of the family friend who was also 6. Meeting up with Matt and the father there, I just stared at the guy and asked him what happened. He laughed and said, ‘The girls didn’t know what a current was. Ha! Ha! I guess they do now!’

I felt rage boiling up inside of me. This was my first experience of meeting a really stupid parent, like seriously stupid. One that shouldn’t be trusted with kids. I was about to blast him with a broadside usually reserved for misbehaving teens, when I looked down to see blood pooling in the water around Matt’s feet.

Turning my attention away from father of the year, I grabbed my towel wrapped it around Matt’s foot and applied pressure. There was blood everywhere and it was quickly seeping through the towel. ‘We need to get you to the hospital!’ I said. As it turned out, all this time, I’d been wearing my sneakers, but Matt had been wearing reef sandals. The rockshelf we’d run along had been covered in oysters and Matt’s feet had been sliced to pieces. Bundling him in the car, we dashed to Milton hospital and were seen quite quickly. After his feet were cleaned up, I could see the deep oyster filled slashes on his feet. The doctor dressed them and Matt’s one question was ‘Will I be ok to surf tomorrow?’

That was the last time I went fishing! Maybe next time, I’ll just go to the shop and grab some fish and chips!

Narrawallee Beach - Outdoor Education

My Background In Risk Management

Risk Management

I realise that already countless people have switched off having read ‘Risk Management’ in the heading and are now watching a video of a fat cat sipping milk from a bowl. If you're still here however, well done for reading this far. I’ll avoid going off on my dolphin party tangent from my last article on risk. Instead this time I’ll jump right in!
 
Many people learn about risk management from a training course or a lifeless lecture by a lawyer telling you of all the dangers of everything, yet having no practical experience in the field themselves. They might put up an infographic for you to look at with some big red warning signs and after an hour or two you're now qualified in risk management. If you've had this experience, you're probably feeling uncomfortable about the whole process and looking for a much better approach. From the start, let me make something clear. Risk management is a cultural attitude within an organisation, not a check box compliance process. Anyone who thinks otherwise is just plain stupid and dangerous to those around them.
 
My first job in experiential education was with a private school, working at their outdoor education campus. It was here that risk management was instilled in me as being a natural part of absolutely everything we did. Not paranoid about risk, but very proactive. Before every activity, the team going on that trip would sit down and write out the risk management for it. There was no thought of simply printing out a generic risk management form that nobody bothered to read and everyone blindly signed it. This was an active discussion of the risks and hazards for that specific activity to ensure it was clear in our minds the risks and controls we needed to put in place to ensure a safe well-managed activity was run.
 
The value of this was immeasurable. On the one hand, you had a current and accountable risk management document for each and every activity, prepared by those who were directly responsible for the safe conduct of the activity. On the other hand, it was building and reinforcing a culture of active risk management. Risk was a regular, open and honest discussion amongst the staff, which kept everyone on the same page and held everyone accountable for the preparation, operation and decision making processes being used. It was never the case of ‘Oh don't worry, I know what I'm doing!’ or  ‘It's someone else's job to do that,’ as I’ve found in so many other organisations. It was a continuous proactive and dynamic process.
 
It's hard for me to understand why anybody wouldn't take this logical approach. Yet, as I said before, this was how I was educated, so I hadn't known it to be any other way, until I moved to another school and the difference was stark and concerning.
 
As a brief background note on the school I was working for originally, 18 months prior to my starting, there’d been a fatality on one of their overnight hikes. This tragic event sent shockwaves through the school and had dramatically and bluntly shaped much of the focus of the organisation moving forward. The devastating fallout from the fatality lingered for years, yet many important lessons were learnt from this experience.
 
Fast forwarding 17 years to today, there’s absolutely no reason why it should take a critical incident to change the culture within an organisation, yet sadly it often does because of a lack of real understanding of risk management and its effective usage. With many fatalities, serious injuries and near misses so well documented by the industry and the coroner, working through some of these cases together as a staff can be of great value in starting the process of cultural change towards the goal of proactive risk managers.
 
When you understand what you're aiming to achieve and how simple oversights can have massive repercussions, then it's much easier to develop the whole team to be working together and thinking along the same lines. The ultimate aim of a proactive risk management culture is to run safe and challenging activities, promote sound decision making and prevent major disruptive events (aka critical incident). There's no future in finding yourself in front of a coroner and your only defence being to say that you at least had all your paperwork in order. At this point, paperwork is quite worthless and purely academic, and you're going to look like a complete idiot and potentially liable, if not culpable.
 
Creating a culture of risk managers means that your paperwork, which is always required, is actually being put into action and that if anything adverse happens, everyone is equipped to respond swiftly and appropriately. However, you will also find that running an organisation with an embedded culture of risk management, will mean the potential of a significantly disruptive event occurring becomes increasingly unlikely.
 
The most important thing is not to repeat the mistakes of the past. Get started today. Read some case studies that are closely aligned to what you're doing on your program and discuss them with your team. Build that culture of the proactive risk manager mindset into your organisation and ensure that you're running the best programs possible with the best framework possible to challenge and really push your students and at the same time ensuring their safety. 

The Problem With Risk Assessments!

Documents - Risk Assessments

As soon as people hear risk assessment, most people switch off! I could say whatever I liked from now on and nobody would be any the wiser.  Once, I kidnapped a dolphin from Sea World and kept him in my swimming pool for weeks. We had several massive pool parties and it was awesome! So many people came and just swam around in the pool with him. We named him flipper! (Ok, so not very original for the name, but between him, Skippy in the back yard and Caramello living up the tree, once you start kidnaping animals as a hobby, you just go with the names everyone knows!)

See what I mean! If you actually made it to here, then you would understand my pain, or you think I'm mental or both! The fact is that most people would've stopped reading after the first line. It’s like when someone tells you they’re an accountant… The conversation usually ends there. However, risk assessment and risk management is a real issue that’s not just making sure you have your paper work done. It has to be an active process that’s taken seriously by everyone and not just something which makes people switch off and start looking for Pokémons with their phones.

The reason for adding in my wild dolphin parties was actually something I did as an exercise once with the program staff. It wasn’t a dolphin party, but how cool would that be! Anyway, I digress. I'd reviewed and updated the entire risk manage framework and needed to get everyone up to speed with the changes. This required everyone to do some reading. I was suspicious to begin with that nothing would be read, so I handed out the documents and unbeknown to them, this version of the risk assessments contained a bunch of massive errors. Some of the risks for a canoe expedition were: Attack by Hobbits, running into Cerberus (the demonic multi-headed dog that guards the gates Hades), being overrun by fluffy bunnies and drowning in chocolate syrup! To my disbelief, three people signed off on this risk assessment!!! I asked them again if they had any concerns or anything to add, ‘No, all good!’ was the standard response. “Really…,” I said, before asking each of them if they were happy to rely upon everyone being saved by Eagles when attacked by hordes of orcs? Stunned expressions turned to embarrassment when I provided a highlighted copy with all the glaringly obvious fake bits.

So does anybody read this rubbish? Basically, the answer is No! They don’t read it and it’s often a massive task to get anyone to write a risk assessment. Most are inappropriately copied and pasted from someone else’s work and don’t even match the real risk profile of the activity. Who would’ve thought that teaching is a hot bed of plagiarism!

Whilst I’m not saying don’t do it, I am saying there’s a massive problem that needs fixing here. What’s the point of wasting time with the creation of something that has very little value and nobody is actually using. What needs to happen is far different from what is actually happening in many schools when preparing for an excursion. The danger is that you’ve copied something that doesn’t make sense and submitted that as part of your official documentation. If this is the case and something goes wrong, this is just as bad, if not worse, than having nothing at all, because it demonstrates a complete disconnection from the awareness implementation of effective risk management strategies.

Ultimately no single person should be responsible for the risk assessment and management. It’s up to everybody on the team to contribute and turn those mindless pointless risk assessment forms that may contain attacks by mythical creatures, into functional living documents based upon industry best practices and a culture that proactively takes risk management off the page and continues to put it into action. Whilst I’ll revisit this later in some more detail, I must go and catch a plane, as my house has just been raided by National Parks and Wildlife. I might need to find a new hobby!

Alcohol & Camp Don't Mix... Ever!

Alcohol School Policy

Ok so, this is something that should go without saying, but it really annoys me when it has to be said. I’ve been in the situation before on a number of occasions where we’ve shared a venue with another school and after dinner you notice some of the teachers sneaking off to have a drink! I mean seriously!!!! WTF? They even speak in poorly veiled code that most kids would understand.

I was reminded of this the other day, when I was plowing through a boarding school training manual, something which just seems common sense after working in boarding schools for 15 years. However, I still had to go through this and there was a question about the school’s alcohol policy, which was really easy to answer! Zero! Nothing whilst on duty, on back up, on camp or anywhere near the kids! It makes perfect sense! So why is it so hard for some teachers not to have a drink for a few nights?

The real danger is if something unexpected happens and yes, on camp, something unexpected happens all the time. Things like finding a kangaroo in my bedroom, finding a funnel web spider in my bed, kids accidentally falling out of bunks and hitting their heads, kids getting stuff in their eyes, one boy cut his leg tripping up a step late at night when he was trying to get a drink of water after lights out. So yeah, anything can happen!!!

When something random and unexpected does happen, you’re immediately on deck, and so are other staff, even if they have to be woken up. I’ve had the experience of night time trips to the hospital and having to delegate responsibility to other staff, but what if they’d been drinking? This puts everyone in a compromising position!

Scenario: You must take a student to hospital to get urgent treatment, but your backup staff have had something to drink, therefore not able to responsibly deliver their duty of care. You’re suddenly put in a terrible situation and really have no back up at all. What if something else happens? Who can deal with it then?

Before I get too preachy about this, it’s something that you as a responsible adult must make an informed decision on. Even if it’s one drink, it’s one too many! If you can’t go a couple of days without a drink, then perhaps you shouldn’t be taking kids anywhere.

At the end of the day, all staff members are responsible for kids throughout the camp and they need to be able to effectively step in if something happens. Stay sober! Stay safe! Then if anything ever happens, there’s no come back on you at all.