Managing Risk On the Land

 October 24, 2016
Posted by NWT Recreation and Parks Association
Jess Dunkin recently attended a NOLS Risk Management Training, a great opportunity to improve how we support land-based programming in the NWT.


Here is the situation:

You’re leading a canoe trip for 14 year olds in Killarney Provincial Park (Ontario). You’re one short portage from your campsite and about 30 kilometres from the parking lot where you started your week-long trip yesterday. Two of the participants, Reena and Joe, have decided to tandem-carry one of the canoes across the portage. They don’t see a third participant, Elliot, in front of them. The end of the canoe comes into contact with Elliot’s head and he hits the ground hard, losing consciousness for a brief minute. At first, he responds only to pain, though eventually he is able to respond to simple questions. He complains of a headache and nausea. Aside from being a little pale, his vitals (breathing, pulse, pupils, etc.) check out.

What do you do, first off to respond to the possible head injury, but also in the longer term? Do you and your co-leaders have sufficient training and emergency equipment? Can the trip continue for this participant and for the group? If the participant needs to be evacuated, can you handle that evacuation on your own or will you need outside assistance, which raises the question of who is available to help you? Beyond that, there is the matter of who needs to be notified and when: others in your organization? Next-of-kin? Media? Your insurance company?

This was one of a handful of scenarios presented to participants during a NOLS Risk Management Training two weeks ago in Salt Lake City, Utah. This training was a pre-conference workshop to the 23rd Annual Wilderness Risk Management Conference (WRMC). NOLS, the National Outdoor Leadership School, is one of the premier adventure leadership and training organizations, delivering programming to more than 23,000 people in 20 countries annually. NOLS is also an industry leader in the field of risk management. At NOLS, risk management centres on the prevention of fatality and serious illness and injury. To this end, the organization has developed policies and field practices that enable their instructors to facilitate high-risk activities such as mountaineering and whitewater paddling with limited incident. They also provide training and consultation services for organizations looking to develop or enhance their own risk management plans.

As on the land leaders encounter and respond to different environmental conditions and social situations, whether consciously or not, they are engaging in risk management, which is to say that they are assessing the hazards facing their participants from weather to wild animals to the terrain and making decisions how about to avoid or minimize these risks. A risk management plan formalizes these processes of assessment and management, making clear to leaders and participants their roles and responsibilities and providing direction as to how to make good decisions while on the land.

In 2010, the NWTRPA contracted NOLS to develop a risk management package for the Mackenzie River Youth Leadership Trip. Since that time, we have adapted this package to help individuals and organizations across the territory attend to questions of safety in their land-based programs. Taking part in this workshop was an opportunity for me to learn about new developments in the field and update our package, which in turn, will help us to continue to serve NWT residents in delivery safe on the land programming.

The two-day workshop walked participants through a standard wilderness risk management plan, from the identification of risk management goals and priorities to the creation of relevant administrative materials including health forms and participant agreements to staff recruitment and training to the identification of relevant field policies and practices to the development of emergency response plans. Each section of the plan/training was accompanied by small group activities, discussion, and goal setting. Participants left the workshop with more than just a head full of ideas and a handful of notes. They had concrete action plans with a minimum of five goals and realistic timelines to meeting these objectives.

During the workshop, I identified a number of ways in which our risk management package could be updated and improved. For example, a key take-away of the workshop was that if risk management plans are long and complicated, they won’t be used. One of my tasks over the next few months is to shorten and simplify our risk management package, so that it is more user-friendly. The workshop also revealed different ways to approach risk management planning. I found the use of the acronym AMI to guide this process really helpful. AMI stands for Analyze, Manage, Inform. It highlights the key parts of risk management, the identification of hazards and management of risk, while also foregrounding the importance of information flow to the delivery of safe programs. Not only should program participants be aware of the risks inherent in programs and understand the different practices that will keep them safe, but leaders should have the necessary information about their participants that will help them make good decisions on the land.

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).