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The Tenets of The Wilderness Risk Management Conference - Part Two

Introduction: For anyone who is interested in wilderness education / recreation / conservation and the effective management of risk, there is no annual gathering more valuable and educational than the Wilderness Risk Management Conference (WRMC). I have presented at the conference each year since 2010, served on the steering committee, and had the honor of serving as the steering committee chair for three years. One of my personal highlights from serving as chair was taking the opportunity to collaborate with other committee members to synthesize several decades of learning into over-arching conference principles and tenets.

The author, alongside the printed poster of WRMC Principles and Tenets

Note: This post continues from a previous post, discussing the author's insights from helping to co-author the WRMC principles, which can be found here. We recommend that you start by reading the first post for more background, if you haven't already done so. The first blog post covered the first five tenets of the WRMC, and this blog post covers the remaining five, as follows:

At the WRMC, we believe:

• 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.

We can and should enlist our participants in managing program risks.

Do we want participants to sign up for our programs, and participate in them, under the premise that the guides / instructors / staff are solely responsible for the participants' safety? This is not only a flawed premise (from a legal perspective), but also can create complacency on the part of the participants. A much better, more empowering approach is to see the participants as links in the chain of risk management, and provide them with the tools, knowledge, and sense of responsibility (tailored to the situation) to be active contributors to their own safety, and that of those around them.

I came upon a scene once where a climbing instructor had allowed his students to set up the rappel anchor, and he was about to unclip himself and rappel over the edge using their anchor. He had tasked them with building an anchor with a "BHK" (big honking knot, also known as a double-bight overhand) like so:

image courtesy American Alpine Club

What he didn't realize was that the students had unintentionally built a slip-knot at the master point, which was going to fail altogether under body weight. BUT, because he had created a group dynamic and a set of habits in the group where people were engaged in double-checking each other, one of the students recognized the problem and stopped him just as he was about to go over the edge. I came upon the scene moments later to see the instructor, having turned ghostly white, clipping himself back into a safe place again, grateful for the students' intervention (and somewhat mortified by his near-fatal oversight).

This tenet supports some of the fundamental concepts from what occupational health and safety researchers call "Safety 2" (or, Safety Differently). One of the core beliefs in Safety Differently is that people are not a problem to be managed, but that they can be a solution to your safety concerns, if your program environment and design allows them to be. In the example above, the students saw it as their role to pay attention, double-check things, intervene and prevent a critical incident from occurring. The participants were effectively engaged as links in the chain of risk management. They were able to serve as solutions, rather than problems (or bystanders).

Photo Credit: American Alpine Club

Cultural competence supports risk management, and is essential in creating inclusive


Since this tenet was written, the industry has shifted from talking about DEI (diversity, equity, and inclusion) to the acronym JEDI, which adds justice to the front of the equation. The connections between inclusion and risk management are increasingly obvious, and the conference has continued to add sessions each year focused on JEDI work.

Some programs recognize that JEDI work may be important to their strategic plans, but don't understand the connection to risk management. As we see it at Experiential Consulting, managing emotional safety is just as important as managing physical safety. Some might even see emotional and physical safety as inseparable, as explored in this presentation. In order to foster a program environment that allows for physical and emotional safety, programs must have culturally competent staff and inclusive operations. Many examples and details are outlined in the webinar linked above.

A final comment on this tenet: As we continue to improve in our efforts around JEDI work, it becomes increasingly clear to us that cultural competence may not even be the goal, but rather, cultural humility.

Transparency with participants and their families is valuable and appropriate, including in times of crisis.

Before talking about times of crisis, it's important to emphasize that this tenet applies generally to most program situations. The more transparent and clear we can be with participants and their families, the more they can understand what they're signing up for. This allows people to self-assess if the program is a good fit for them, be best prepared if they do choose to participate, and be better situated to provide informed consent to participate. The benefits of this approach are robust.

Additionally, being open and honest with people in times of crisis - despite traditional, corporate mindsets that can lead programs to do otherwise - has often been identified as a sound risk management practice, rooted in humane treatment, that has helped to avert lawsuits from occurring. In the words of recreation law attorney Leah Corrigan, "It is a false assumption that if an outdoor professional says “sorry” in the event of an incident resulting in death or injury, they have admitted liability. There is a fundamental difference between expressing your sorrow that something devastating occurred, and admitting fault for the occurrence." For a more thorough look at this concept, see a recent blog post by Amberleigh Hammond.

The WRMC regularly provides workshops that help outdoor programs understand how to be open and transparent during times of crisis, and what pitfalls to avoid.

Timely reporting and debriefing of incidents is key to promoting learning and improving

practices over time.

When incidents occur, they provide us with opportunities for learning. One of the key elements we've focused on at Experiential Consulting is helping outdoor programs create workplace environments in which people see incidents as learning opportunities, looking forward to prevent rather than backwards just to allocate blame. Workplace safety author Dr. Sidney Dekker says that when an incident occurs, "you can either learn, or blame, but you can't do both."

Another key implication of this tenet, even if not explicitly called out here, is the importance of learning not just from incidents, but also from near-misses. We have entire blogs and workshops dedicated to this topic, so please see examples here and here.

Another way of looking at this tenet is to say that incidents are normal, and are to be expected. How we cultivate learning from them, and pursue continuous improvement, is an indicator of our organizational risk management culture.

Prudent legal strategies are grounded in running quality programs that prioritize the health and well-being of those involved.

This tenet was written in an attempt to summarize one of the key messages from the remarkable team of recreation law attorneys who have contributed their insights, leadership, and expertise to the conference over many decades, including long-standing contributors such as Charles "Reb" Gregg, Cathy Hansen-Stamp, Frances Mock, Tracey Knutson, Wilma Gray, Leah Corrigan, and others. The point of this tenet is that sound legal strategies are not about avoiding lawsuits, but rather, about pursuing quality programs.

Gregg has defined a quality program as one which "deals reasonably and fairly with its clients or students and their families. A program that delivers what it says it will deliver, and does so in the context of reasonable management of the risks, is not assured of "safety" or freedom from lawsuits. But generally, if such a level of performance is achieved, legal liability issues are minimized and take care of themselves."


We hope that this two-part series inspires you to self-assess how your program is doing relative to these over-arching tenets and principles, and join us at the WRMC to integrate your ideas into the larger conversation. We also hope that you'll submit a proposal to present at the 27th Annual WRMC in Burlington, VT October 28-30, or register to join us there as participants.

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