Attitudes Towards Risk

slip-up-danger-careless-slippery - Risk Management

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 recce, 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.

Contingency Planning

Contingency Planning - Risk Management

I mentioned in an earlier post, 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!

What To Do About The Weather!

Bad Weather - Risk Management

As I lay back snuggled in my sleeping bag, the constant pitter patter of rain hits and splashes noisily away on my tent. We've just canoed all day on Lake Yarrunga with our Year 9 boys. Half of this was in the rain, the other half on calm glassy water.

Dinner and our debrief tonight switched between sitting around the campfire and huddling under the tarp as the rain swept in and out! The boys were all in bed by 8pm, so no complaints on my part.

I'd known about the rain for days, so this was neither a surprise, nor a concern. I've gone out in far better conditions and far, far worse! But where do you draw the line? For many excursions, weather isn't the most important factor, as you could be visiting a museum, gallery or other indoor venue and not need worry too much about what's happening outside. However, it's well worth developing the habit of checking weather conditions before any and every trip away to ensure you have the whole operational picture in your mind and be able to adapt or react if unfavourable conditions are forecast. It’s far better to change plans in anticipation of problems, rather than actually having to deal with the problems that result from a bad decision.

You Know You're Going To Get Wet...

You Know You're Going To Get Wet...

So back to my iPhone illuminated tent and the now silent campsite. I'd known since last week the forecast was for rain and it would be a factor in our decision making process. We'd discussed the issue with the team and had devised a clear contingency plan depending on severity. Lots of rain and operating on rivers and lakes with huge catchment areas is always a concern at the back of my mind. I never want to be caught by a rising river nor have to execute a late night evac from a campsite (super dangerous). I’m more the relaxing by a warm fire reading a book type of guy, rather than the Oh Crap! We made a bad decision by staying type of guy! I’d rather err on the side of caution, than be stuck with the consequences and being proactive about the weather is one way of doing this.

Studying the forecasts as they were updated each day, the concern remained that we were going to get wet, but it wasn't going to be that wet, so we decided that we were still heading out. Now I'll just pause to reflect here for a sec. I've also been in the situation where the weather was checked, discussed and I thought it wasn't safe to proceed, yet I was told by my then boss I had to go out! The result was pretty bad, like really bad... but that's a whole other story in itself and one I will come back to another time.

It might seem simple enough and should go without saying, but often it’s overlooked and being able to make an informed decision through checking what the weather is doing is an important part of any school's risk management strategy on all excursions. It can help you better prepare contingencies for adverse conditions or help you pack the right clothing and equipment. The last thing you want when organising your excursion is to be surprised by a sudden storm, a heat wave or strong winds that could put you and your students at risk. It literally takes two minutes to check the weather and can save you hours or months of trauma by doing so. This is not to say that you should only be a fair weather field tripper. That’s not the point at all! Having kids feel uncomfortable in the elements can be a great learning experience. Some of my best trips have been in bad weather, but the difference was that it was never dangerous weather that put them at risk of harm. If we only ever went out when it was clear blue sky, then we'd never do half the activities and the kids would be poorer for the lack of experience. I’ll address different approaches I’ve taken in more detail in some later posts and examine the consequences of some poor decision making on other school trips, when a check of the weather could have prevented injuries and serious consequences.

Anyway, despite being uncomfortable today, it proved to be a great learning experience for the boys, canoeing, setting up and cooking in the rain. For some looking after their personal equipment has never been more important. For me, my feet are still drying at the base of my sleeping bag and I know my tent will be soaked in the morning, but I’m snug and warm, all the kids are sleeping soundly and I’m about to drift off myself… It’s been a good day!

Rock Climb The Arapiles

Rock Climb Mount Arapiles - Outdoor Education

For the adventurous rock climber, Mount Arapiles in Tooan State Park Victoria is an absolute must! This is a world class climbing spot and regarded as the best in Australia, attracting locals and international climbers alike. Four hours North West of Melbourne, the mountain range suddenly rises up out of the near dead-flat Wimmera plains, a stunning sight in itself, but wait till you get to the top!

The nearest regional centre to the Arapiles, is Horsham . Head west from there on the Wimmera Highway until you get to the small township of Natimuk. There’s a really good general store there for some basic last minute supplies. From there, you can’t miss the mountain range. It’s dramatic, stunning and rises up out of the Wimmera plains to dominate the landscape.

There are over 2,500 different routes to climb on this mountain, which provides a massive range of options for the beginner, right through to the advanced lead climber. Even though you’re bound to find other climbers around, there’s plenty of options from which to choose.

To get started, there’s a number of small, short climbs with easy road access and simple to setup top belays without having to lead climb up. These are perfect for the whole family, training the kids, or just bouldering to improve your own technique.

Further in, the mountain opens up into a massive collection of climbing routes for all skill levels and abilities. There’s an abundance of multi-pitch lead climbs up challenging rock faces, chimneys and stand-alone rock pillars. For less experienced climbers, guided climbs are available from the local area. For the experts, grab yourself a route map and get climbing!

The views from the top are stunning. The mountain is a stand-alone feature on the landscape, so all around you it drops down to the beautiful agricultural plains of Western Victoria as far as the eye can see.

There’s way too much to do here for just one day, so plan to make a trip of it. If you want to stay onsite, you must book camping in advance via the Parks Victoria Website. The camp ground has a great international atmosphere, with people from all over world hanging out and taking on the variety of challenging rock faces. Whilst this is an all year round location, Summer here does get really hot, so from a risk point of view just keep that in mind. 

If you love climbing, then this is by far the best place to do it Australia!



•         Tent

•         Sleeping Bags

•         Sleeping Mat

•         Food

•         Gummy Bears (because you just can’t go wrong with them)

•         Camping Stove

•         Firewood (You're not allowed to collect wood from the site.)

•         Water

•         Lanterns

•         Sunscreen

•         Insect Repellent

•         Clothes for hot midday and cold nights

•         Climbing Gear (helmet, ropes, harness, devices, shoes)

•         First Aid Kit

•         Camera

Don't Lead Student Trips For Them!

Hiking - Outdoor Education

What's the point of spending time and energy setting up an outdoor ed program aimed at building leadership, teamwork and initiative, then subsequently provide no opportunities for students to actually take responsibility for any of this themselves?

So often I see teachers ‘run’ programs, in that they take the students out, think for them, navigate for them, constantly give instructions on how to do everything and determine the whole schedule for each and every day.

Realistically, students can get this sort of experience any day of the week at home or in the classroom. So don't make the mistake of doing this in your experiential education program!

The command and control operational management style is often starkly noticeable if contracting out your program out to a third party. Whilst some organisations are great, many of them process groups the way you'd process cattle through a dairy. They get herded in, run through the process and led out the other end none the wiser. For cows, the experience seems ok, having chewed a bit of cud and hung out with some other cows. However, has the cow learnt or achieved anything from this? Not really! The only enlightenment she’s achieved is having less milk. But there's lots of money in pointless processes. Look at government departments. They're great at it! I mean really great at it! I guess when you’re onto something good, you should stick to it.

Experiential education however, is not about a process of running fun activities for the sake of it. There’s so much more depth to it than that. It’s about the opportunity to lead, not to be led! The opportunity to take risks, not to have someone tell you what to do. It's about teamwork and decision making.

For teachers, to giving up the reigns and allow students be challenged, experience new things and grow from this may feel awkward and difficult at first. However, if you don’t, then you’re wasting some fantastic educational opportunities.

I've seen teachers on experiential education trips wanting to control and run everything and I mean everything!!! From setting up tents, to collecting firewood, to holding onto a bag of cereal in the morning and dishing it out flake by flake. Some teachers just can't let go of control. If you're like this, it's time to stop as you're not helping anyone with anything.

You need to stand back and allow your students to take the risk of leadership, decision making and self-management and allow them to have the chance to shine and the chance to fail! They're going to learn more from this than they ever will if you were to jump in and catch them before they fail. All you need to do is frame an effective debrief if they do fail, to create a great learning opportunity from this. Conversely, when they display initiative and leadership, use this to extend and challenge your students. You will be amazed the difference this makes.

To be able to do this effectively, when you get into the field, provide your students with a clear and detailed briefing on what needs to happen and what roles need to be fulfilled. Only do this once, as failure to listen can lead to some great learning opportunities for those who choose not to. On the conclusion of your brief, the responsibility needs to then be given to your students to make it all happen. Your role now is purely a safety one to ensure that the wider range of risks are monitored and addressed without intervention in the group decision-making process. The only time you now step in, is if there is a potentially dangerous risk that arises and requires your experience and knowledge to manage.

By allowing students the chance to take on responsibilities they’d not normally have, helps to super charge the learning opportunities in a short period of time. Mistakes are made, tempers are frayed and people are pushed well outside their comfort zones. Whilst this may sound like chaos to some people, it’s a natural and highly effective way of teaching and learning for everyone involved. You can achieve more growth and development from any of your experiential education activities by allowing your students to run them themselves, rather than having you or any other teacher do it for them.

So for your next experiential education activity: Set it up once, let go of the reigns and allow your students to take the initiative and shine.