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. 

Lock Down In Parliament House!

Parliament House - Excursion

Since there's an election going on I thought it was time to tell about the most interesting experience I've ever had in Parliament house. Pretty much everyone goes there for their year 6 Canberra trip. The kids are taken from place to place in the name of national discovery and of course, they eventually end up at Parliament. Now I've been to Parliament many many times. I've done work experience there, had dinner there, got lost there and sat in on countless budget nights and question times. All in all each experience was interesting, but all quite unremarkable. However, one day we took the year 9 boys from Scots down to explore the war memorial and attend question time. This experience turned into something entirely different...

It was a normal start to the day like every other time we'd been to Canberra. We wandered around the war memorial and then after lunch, we headed over to Parliament. As the bus drove up the awe inspiring driveway we could see a crowd gathered on the lawn opposite the main entrance. To put the story in context this was the time when Prime Minister John Howard had just committed troops to Iraq for the second Gulf War. So of course it was pretty clear that this crowd wasn't there to celebrate his birthday. There's nothing quite like taking a group of year 9 boys past an angry mob. Since this was the first contact they'd had with the outside world for several weeks, the air was electric with excitement.

Descending into the underground car park, there was a bus with a lot of well-armed police getting off it. This only added to the excitement and through trying to get the boys inside as fast as possible, I started feeling like the fireman standing in front of a burning building moving people on, saying there's nothing to see here. However, with a lot of coaxing, I ushered my group of boys inside and safely through security.

You could feel the tension in the air as there were far more security guards than I’d ever seen before. We led the boys upstairs and into question time. To say this was the most exciting question time I've ever been to would be quite an understatement. It wasn't what was going on in the chamber, it was what was going on in the public galleries that made it so exciting. There were protesters everywhere and despite all the security, there were no shortage of them in the public gallery. Whilst trying to supervise the boys and keep them from talking, I couldn't help but be totally distracted by the drama going on around us. Protester after protester jumped up yelling out over the balcony and into the chamber below. As soon as someone yelled something, they were grabbed by security and dragged out of the gallery. I sensed movement to my right. Glancing up there was a woman. She stepped forward, opened her mouth and cried out. Suddenly her body lurched back as two burley security guards dragged her away, hands awkwardly pinned behind her back. The boys next to me excitedly exclaimed, 'Sir did you see that?' I quickly put my finger to my lips 'Shhhhhh.'

This continued throughout question time and it looked like the speaker was about to close and clear the galleries. However, the politicians persisted with whatever they were doing and we kept enjoying the show that was going on around us. Question time eventually came to an end and all the politicians funneled out of the chamber. To think this was the end of the story, think again, it was only just getting started.

We were ushered out of the House of Reps only to find that we had our own security escort taking us to the hospitality section where we were to have afternoon tea and meet our local member of parliament. Halfway there I heard a voice come over the security guard's radio. 'They going for the front door!' All of a sudden there was a rush of security guards from all over racing towards the foyer. Our escort stayed with us, delivering us to the lounge area in hospitality. He told us to stay there until further notice, then promptly disappeared, no doubt to check out the riot we could hear downstairs.

Whilst being served a popper (juice box - not drugs) and a biscuit for afternoon tea we could hear the shouting, the yelling, the chanting and the commotion of it all. Smoke billowed up past the windows we were told to keep clear of, as flags burnt and the roar of the crowd intensified.

We were locked down in hospitality for over an hour before a security guard returned and said 'we've cleared a way out for you.' Throughout this whole time the noise of the crowd hadn't subsided and things were still in full swing! A number of other security guards had appeared and they divided us into small groups with one teacher and around 15 boys. I had a gappie with me too (an English guy named James, who was also finding this super exciting!) we almost killed him the day he arrived in Australia (our bad, but that's a story for another time). Anyway I was at the front of the group, James was at the back and we were led down the stairs and through the foyer. To our left were the massive glass door, on the inside it was spotted with parliamentary security guards. On the outside, was the police riot squad, vastly out-numbered and pressed up against the doors. The boys wanted to stay and watch (so did I, but our hosts seemed very keen to get us out of the building). I reassured the boys that we'd see something really exciting again and we didn't want to be late for dinner at McDonalds. Sadly many of the boys were more excited about McDonalds than what they were in the middle of right here right now. We cleared the foyer, were led to an elevator and crammed in. Silence gripped the lift as we descended towards the basement. One boy standing next James broke the silence with "Mmm sir, you smell really nice!" Everyone erupted with laughter, with the exception of the security guard who started yelling at everyone to shut up! Now this was weird, obviously no sense of humour, which is very important when dealing with kids, even when there's a crisis. I rolled my eyes as I was laughing myself. Being couped up for hours, this was the funniest thing that had been said all day.

The doors opened and we were in what appeared to be a service corridor. Gone were the grand and glamorous marbles and polished timbers. Now it was just Stalinist concrete. Very secure, very functional. The corridor led to another security station, which we passed through and were handed off from grumpy security guard to a much friendlier one who took us right up to the exit and out we popped in a carpark. The heavy security doors closed behind us, we could see our bus waiting as well as another riot squad formed, ready to charge up the stairs and take the protesters by surprise.

For getting 80 kids and 6 staff out of the building like that, it all happened so quickly. Counting the boys onto the bus and making sure we had everyone we were soon driving out away from the chaos. Smoke still plumed out of the crowd, which was now so large that it engulfed the entire entrance to parliament. All I can say, was that it was never a better time to visit our Federal Parliament for question time!

The Right Person For Safety

Right Person For Safety

I've previously written about the need for having a designated safety officer as part of your operational management plan. The safety officer is your backup and support for all field operations and as such, should be a key component of your risk management strategy.
 
However, this isn't a token honorary role for someone to sit around and do nothing, or ‘do admin’. The person has to be experienced, competent and switched on, ready to respond to anything from small hurdles and emergencies, to full-blown crisis and critical incident management.
 
When do incidents happen? Any time, any place and to anybody! Consequently, the safety officer role must be taken extremely seriously and be done by someone who is capable of quickly responding and adapting to what can be fluid, chaotic and evolving situations.
 
Unfortunately, I've seen the other side where organisations and individuals haven't valued the safety officer role, nor taken it seriously and those put in the position of safety officer have thought it to be a nice, cushy, quiet ‘day off,’ which it's not. I could run through several examples of the disastrous mess that's occurred when organisations and individuals have taken this approach, however, I’ll stick with just one for now.

It was a weekend like any other at our residential outdoor education campus. We had 60 students in the field and 20 onsite. My group was the one onsite, so I had an insight into everything that was going on. I was told my help wasn't needed, but I made sure I remained informed and kept my finger on the pulse, just in case things changed.
 
I'd seen the safety officer, who was part of the admin staff and not really experienced in field operations. He'd been causally wandering around campus and saying how he was looking forward to finishing up and going home, as he didn't like working weekends. It had basically been a trade off. He had to work a weekend as did everyone else, but rather than be out on a trip, he decided the best place for him was in the office ‘doing safety.’
 
At around 3pm, a call came in from one of the groups. One of the boys had been bitten by a snake… They weren't sure what sort…

The near comedic chaos that followed demonstrated that not only do you need someone on safety. You  need someone who is switched on and competent. Maps were being pulled out, madly opened and juggled about to work out which way was up. A worried and panicked expression had set into the safety officer’s face and a general state of confusion gripped the air.
 
This really wasn't the confident basis for a swift response and to say things took a long time, would be a serious understatement. The lack of mental preparation by the safety officer and the limitation of knowledge and understanding as to what was going on became immediately apparent.
 
Fumbling through the whole messy process, what should've been a simple pickup from a trailhead ran from 3pm until just after 8pm when the boy was finally transported to hospital. There was no hiking. No 4WDing involved. Everything was accessible via sealed roads and the nearest town was 20mins away. As evacuations go, it was a fairly simple and straightforward one. So why did it take so long?
 
The main factor was the safety officer wasn't switched on to the fact that something could go wrong. He had the attitude that all he was doing was having a nice quiet day in the office, where he might have to answer the occasional phone call. He was also already thinking about going home. Because he wasn't mentally prepared, when circumstances changed, he didn't shift his thinking into response mode. Instead, he immediately went into panic mode, which consequently turned everything into a chaotic mess, dramatically increasing the potential for further harm.
 
At the end of the day, the boy finally got to hospital and thankfully, after tests were done (and the fact that it had been hours since the bite and no obvious signs of envenomation had emerged), the doctors found he hadn't been poisoned and was treated for the puncture wounds and sent home. This result was sheer dumb luck and if the boy had been poisoned, the outcome could have been far worse.
 
The bottom line is, don't rely on dumb luck, or inexperienced staff to get you through an emergency or crisis. If they're not experienced enough to be in the field, then they're the last person you want acting as backup and operational support. As part of your standard operations, you need to effectively plan and prepare for contingencies and most of all, ensure your safety officer is the right person for the job. When things go wrong, they go wrong quickly and your safety officer needs to be able to react and respond just as quickly and effectively.
 
By doing this, you ensure the right framework and resources are in place so that in the unlikely event something adverse happens, it can be swiftly contained. Good response can prevent any further injury or damage can be minimised. Right person, right place, right time, isn't dumb luck, it's good planning.

The Need For Safety Backup

Miss On Phone.jpg

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.

The Idea Of Risk And Education

Risk Photo

Why is everyone so afraid of the word risk? To be honest talking about risk is a risky topic in itself, because whenever people think of risk, it conjures up visions of dangerous risk and is usually associated with money grubbing lawyers, soulless insurance companies and drawn out court cases, all of which should be avoided, like the plague or romantic candle lit dinners with Kim Jong Un.
 
Unfortunately, people become blinkered to anything else, especially when dating a dictator who desperately needs to find a new hairdresser. Seriously though, regardless whether risk is dangerous or not, it fills people with a sense of fear. Not knowing how to deal with one’s fear, leads to a perception that all risk is bad and therefore all risk must be avoided at all cost.
 
However, every part of our lives involves some form of risk. Whether it be trying a new dish off a menu for the first time, deciding what to do on the weekend or planning to leave your current job in pursuit of a new career. All these things involve risk. However, most of this risk stems from people’s inbuilt fears rather than serious risk of harm. Consequently, not all risk is dangerous risk, but it does make us feel uncomfortable, or even fearful because the outcome is unknown. Often people will delay making decisions, or avoid them entirely, because they want to avoid the risk of making the ‘wrong’ decision.
 
Education is all about taking risks, yet due to the misconception that risk is just about dangerous risk, there’s a huge disconnect with schools being proactive with their students and educating them how to take measured and reasonable risks to help them develop and grow. Instead, the focus is on ‘playing it safe’ and being totally and utterly risk averse. Once again, the nanny state and its perverse litigious legal system can justify its own existence.
 
It’s drilled into many children from a young age, ‘be safe’, ‘take care’, ‘don’t do this’, ‘don’t do that!’ ‘BE CAREFUL!!!’ It’s fair enough that parents don’t want to put their child in danger. However, I’m not talking about dangerous risks, so if they’re so risk-averse that they’re not even willing to let their kids get dirty playing around in the backyard at a friend’s house, it’s going to cause much, much bigger problems later on.
 
Unfortunately, the current generation of school-aged kids seems to have been brought up by a generation of paranoid, risk averse parents who are desperate to see no ‘harm’ come to their ‘special child!’ Sadly, as a result of this paranoid parenting, it’s actually damaged many a child’s ability to understand what it means to take a risk, and to be able to take measured and informed risks for themselves. The comfort zones of kids are slowly smothering them into inaction and indecision, then often their perception of risk is either totally over the top, or so oblivious they believe they’re impervious to anything.
 
There are only two approaches you can take when dealing with risk. You can either accept and proactively embrace the inherent risks that life brings, or you can try to avoid them completely. By trying to avoid any sort of risk and avoid the risk of ‘failure,’ this can do more damage to children, than letting them explore and experience risk from within in a positive framework.
 
If parents have the ultimate goal of ensuring their child can’t possibly fail at anything in school, they’re missing the point about education and personal development. The reality is that this ‘perfect child,’ ‘perfect world’ approach is disastrously counterproductive and can only lead to a much greater failure in the future. By being over-protective, parents are not giving their children the chance to develop coping mechanisms and the resilience needed to deal with life’s setbacks that will most certainly occur.
 
Instead of wrapping kids in bubble wrap to protect them from everything, it becomes critical to allow them to explore taking risks within a structured framework such as an experiential education program. This allows them to think for themselves, make decisions and risk failure without massive negative consequences.
 
Through experiencing what taking risks feels like and helping students step outside their comfort zones, we can help students learn about taking chances in life, which is what life’s all about. It’s not about ‘playing it safe,’ to the point that you never progress and grow as a person. It’s about pushing the boundaries to make the most of opportunities and to become the best you can. Next time you’re running a program, set up an activity that involves a good amount of perceived risk that’s suitable for the age and maturity of your students. Through this, encourage them to take a chance, try something completely new and push beyond the boundaries that have been unnaturally put in place for them by others.
 
Failing that, there’s always that romantic dinner date…