The Tenets of the Wilderness Risk Management Conference: Part One
I had the honor of serving as the Chair of the WRMC Steering Committee for three years, and one of the most rewarding projects was working with the steering committee members (especially current WRMC Chair, Katie Baum Mettenbrink) to distill two decades of WRMC learning into core principles that we could use to better evaluate conference proposals, and create shared language and philosophy for future conferences. Now, when people attend the Wilderness Risk Management Conference, one of the first things that greet them when they arrive is a prominent display showing the conference's tenets and principles, as follows:
• Wilderness and outdoor experiences create unique opportunities for growth.
• There is value in taking risks, and those risks need to be thoughtfully assessed and managed.
• We have a responsibility to share learning in order to promote improved practices across the industry.
• Each organization should define its own risk management goals and practices, while also
striving to learn from the experiences of others.
• Managing the risks to our participants and staff helps us manage the risks to our organizations.
• We can and should enlist our participants in managing program risks.
• Cultural competence supports risk management and is essential in creating inclusive
• Transparency with participants and their families is valuable and appropriate, including in times of crisis.
• Timely reporting and debriefing of incidents is key to promoting learning and improving
practices over time.
• Prudent legal strategies are grounded in running quality programs that prioritize the health and well-being of those involved.
In this article, I'll offer perspective and background on how we arrived at these tenets, and what they represent to me, by digging deeper into the thinking behind each one and exploring how they apply today.
1) Wilderness and outdoor experiences create unique opportunities for growth.
Why did we include the phrase, "and outdoor experiences?" Although the conference is called the Wilderness Risk Management Conference, not everyone who attends (and contributes to) the conference operates solely in wilderness areas. We believe that there is unique value in outdoor recreation and adventure, whether in true wilderness or not.
We believe that the outdoors creates opportunity for health, personal growth, and learning that simply can't occur indoors, or in traditional classroom educational settings. The potential for outdoor experiences to benefit health, grow character, develop resilience, and be therapeutic, are well documented. In his WRMC opening address from 2012, Christopher Barnes explored how outdoor experiences create unique opportunities for growth ("Advocating for Risk in a Risk-Averse World.")
I am indebted to organizations such as The Children and Nature Network which has led the charge in gathering and distributing research that demonstrably shows the value and impact of outdoor experiences for people and communities, and for helping to lead a global movement to connect people with meaningful outdoor experiences, inspired by C&NN founder Richard Louv's best-selling book, Last Child in the Woods which coined the concept of Nature Deficit Disorder.
2) There is value in taking risks, and those risks need to be thoughtfully assessed and managed.
This tenet stands out in contrast to how risk is often discussed in our relatively risk-averse society, but outdoor education programs understand that there is value to taking risks, tied to their mission and educational outcomes. Risk creates unique opportunity for learning to occur, and yet, we must carefully assess and manage that risk to maximize learning.
Striking that critical balance between mission and risk, between learning and uncertainty, is the conversation that brings people to WRMC, where Attorney Reb Gregg annually reminds us that "The Law Says 'Yes' to Risk!"
3) We have a responsibility to share learning in order to promote improved practices across the industry.
Although the WRMC has inspired and educated tens of thousands of participants from thousands of organizations since its inception in 1994, the WRMC came to exist following a fatality in 1989, after which the family challenged outdoor programs to pursue more dialog around risk management, sharing learning and practices between organizations.
In my own career in outdoor education, I have seen how positive changes and learning can arise out of otherwise-tragic incidents, both for individuals and for organizations. Much like incident reporting can allow others to learn from our experiences, the conference provides a larger community the opportunity (and responsibility) to share learning which promotes improved practices across the industry.
I like to point out how outdoor programs compete with each other in many ways: we compete for staff, for students, for partnerships, donors, foundations, grants, and publicity for our programs. One place where it behooves everyone to collaborate rather than compete is in the arena of risk management, and sharing lessons learned. These lessons arise from shared vulnerability and courage that helps create and define the remarkable community that is the WRMC.
4) Each organization should define its own risk management goals and practices, while also striving to learn from the experiences of others.
How many times have you found bits and pieces of one program's manual, incident report form, or emergency response plan being utilized in another program? While it's practical, cost-effective, and time-saving to simply "borrow" from another program, we like to compare this practice to borrowing an owner's manual from a different car than your own. It might have many of the same components (gas tank, windshield, emergency brake, etc) but the usefulness of that manual breaks down the closer you look. At WRMC, we encourage all programs to share concepts and lessons with each other, but to do the work of uniquely defining your own risk management goals and practices.
A concrete example (outside of WRMC) can be found in the unfortunate case of British Petroleum's written emergency response plan for the Deepwater Horizon which famously exploded off the shore of Louisiana in 2010. The plan had apparently been lifted directly from plans used in other parts of the world, as it mentioned, among other things, walruses and sea otters (none of which reside anywhere near the Gulf of Mexico). When we borrow things from one place and drop them wholesale into another system altogether, they may fail to serve their intended purpose. Likewise, organizations should define their own risk management goals, their own appetite or tolerance for risk, and the practices that will help get them there.
5) Managing the risks to our participants and staff helps us manage the risks to our organizations.
Another way of saying this is that we don't get sued for accidents that don't happen. In other words, as Attorney Charles "Reb" Gregg puts it, "the best way to manage risk is to run a quality program -- one that accurately assesses risks, manages those risks, and keeps its promises to its people." Still, even the best run program can still have critical incidents occur. When these happen, the better we have designed, delivered, and documented our programs and risk management systems, the better we have managed the risks to the organization itself.
TO BE CONTINUED IN PART TWO...
WRMC: Albuquerque, New Mexico, Oct 30-Nov 1, 2019
Members of Experiential Consulting, LLC will present the following workshops
Steering the Ship: Risk Management For Executive Leadership & Board Members (8-hour workshop)
by Joshua Cole and Steve Smith
90-Minute Conference Presentations:
How to Hijack Heads and Hearts: Creating Culture, Psychological Safety, and Fast- Tracking Your Way to a High Performing Team
by Amberleigh Hammond
Safety Differently! Key Concepts from Safety Experts in Other Industries
by Steve Smith
We look forward to connecting with friends and colleagues as always!