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4 Key Lessons in Risk Management Planning

 October 31, 2016
Posted by NWT Recreation and Parks Association
On the Land Programs Consultant Jess Dunkin lists her most important takeaways from the Wilderness Risk Management Conference in Salt Lake City, UT.

Two attendees of the 2016 Wilderness Risk Management Conference in Salt Lake City, UT. (Photo:WRMC)

Two attendees of the 2016 Wilderness Risk Management Conference in Salt Lake City, UT. (Photo: WRMC)

As I write this blog, I am 35,000 feet in the air, returning home from Salt Lake City, site of the 2016 Wilderness Risk Management Conference (WRMC). Started in 1994, the WRMC is a professional development and networking opportunity cohosted by the National Outdoor Leadership School, Outward Bound, and the Student Conservation Association for administrators and field instructors working in adventure education and tourism.

As with any conference, I feel a mix of elation and exhaustion as I make my way home. I’m excited to get back to work and to start implementing some of the things that I learned while in Salt Lake. I’m also really tired and looking forward to a couple of days off. I’ve just spent the last four days thinking about and talking about all of the things that can go wrong when you spend time outside. The conference keynote, which took place on the final night of the gathering, took attendees back to Winter 2003, when 14 people were killed in two separate avalanche events in the Canadian Rockies—seven of them 15 year old students on a class trip. Of course, we also discussed the joys of getting outside and the myriad benefits of land-based programming. It’s important to keep sight of this.

In addition to the keynote and a pre-conference workshop on risk management training (which I posted about last week), I attended eight workshops over two days that explored a range of subjects, from risk assessment to staff training to incident reporting to diversity and inclusion. For all of the variety, there were common themes and messages. I have identified four that really stood out for me:

  1. Risk assessment and planning are complex processes, but risk management plans should be simple.

A month-long mountaineering program will involve a variety of different hazards from rock falls and thunderstorms to river crossings and wild animals. These environmental factors intersect with human factors, such as health, behaviour, and decision-making, as well as equipment to create an ever-changing potential for illness or injury (the standard definition of risk). To navigate this complex set of hazards and keep their participants safe, program leaders need a plan that is easy to access, use, and execute.  This plan should include policies and procedures to guide decision-making on a day-to-day basis, as well as emergency response plans.

  1. There is more to risk management than having a plan.

A risk management plan isn’t a magic document. It doesn’t implement itself. It doesn’t stand in for proper training and good decision-making. It doesn’t, by virtue of its existence, create a positive culture of risk management in your organization. To the contrary, a risk management plan is only as good as the people who implement it. It requires administrators and on the land leaders who are committed to its use. It provides well-trained and competent staff guidance as they make decisions in the field. The best risk managers work in organizations that hire competent staff, invest in the appropriate training, provide the necessary supports to make good decisions, and encourage open dialogue around incidents and near misses, so that improvements can be made.


Attendees socializing at the 2016 Wilderness Risk Management Conference in Salt Lake City, UT. (Photo: WRMC)

  1. Risk management plans need to consider emotional, social, and mental risks, as well as physical ones.

I attended three sessions at the WRMC on the theme of diversity and inclusion, all of which drove home the point that attending to physical risks such as weather and terrain is not enough. We also need to think about the mental, emotional, and social hazards that face participants from racism to mental illness to homophobia and transphobia. How is your program working to meet the needs of participants from diverse backgrounds? Do you have inclusion statements? Do your staff receive mental health first aid and cultural competency training? If we want land-based programs to be physically safe, they also need to be emotionally safe. (One of the On the Land Stream sessions at the 2016 NWTRPA Conference explored this idea of emotional safety. You can read a Storify of this session here.)

  1. Risk management plans are living documents.

Last year, your organization began the process of developing a risk management plan for the annual culture camps that you offer. This past month, you launched the completed plan as part of your staff training, offering your project team workshops on your risk management goals, field practices, and emergency response protocols. The response has been positive and you are hopeful about the implementation of the plan. Congratulations on taking this step, but don’t assume you’ve arrived to the end of the road. Risk management is a journey, not a destination. Trip debriefs, incident and near miss reports, and more informal feedback from staff and participants will help you to keep the plan current and effective.

Being on the land can be a positive, transformative experience. However, this requires that programs are safe for participants and staff. The NWTRPA works with individuals and communities who are delivering on the land programs to identify hazards and develop appropriate policies and practices related to safety and emergency response.

For more information about safety planning and risk management, contact Jess Dunkin (jdunkin@nwtrpa.org | 669.8376).