The Unthinkable is still the Foreseeable

The Unthinkable is still the Foreseeable

Why Critical Incident Management Planning must be a Regular part of our work.

The Unthinkable is still the Foreseeable:

Why Critical Incident Management Planning must be a Regular part of our work.

Dr Clare Dallat
Director, Risk Resolve

Your phone rings. You hear the voice on the other end, and as the sound enters your ears, and the words travel to your brain, you reach a knowing. A knowing that things cannot be the same again.

This exchange above represents a synthesis of over fifty similar stories I’ve both heard, and experienced, in my twenty-five-year career as a professional outdoor educator. People, like you and me taking, or doing the behind-the-scenes organising to take people into the outdoors for enriching, meaningful experiences, whether it be for educational, recreational, therapeutic, or other reasons. We were all going about our daily jobs in a very normal way; acting like any other prudent professional, or volunteer would. Then things change.  We are directly involved in a critical incident, or we receive the call that one has occurred.

Fortunately, these events are very rare, however, when they do occur, the impact of fatal and serious incidents are significant and impact so many. The primary victims directly involved, their families, friends and their community. These people’s lives have been forever changed and consideration and care for them, must be the primary focus of our support following critical incidents.

A way to ensure that this focus is completely placed on caring and supporting these primary victims involved in the critical incidents is to have a well-planned, practiced and current critical incident management plan.  This planning must begin long before incidents occur.  Or put it another way, inadequate preparation can have significant personal, operational, legal and reputational consequences on your organisation.

Recently, QORF and the OEAQ, along with Risk Resolve ran three introductory workshops, on Reactive Critical Incident Management Planning, in both Cairns and Brisbane to help participants understand and prepare an effective response to critical incidents in their organisations. Below, some of the key areas covered in the workshop are recapped.

The Myths of Critical Incident Management

As so few critical incidents occur, and because we are generally focused on the here and now of the jobs we are in, it can be tempting to believe that the plan that’s sitting in our drawer, or the one that you inherited when you got the job, will be effective. Nothing could be further from the truth. When we enter the realm of receiving terrible news, or when the phones and social media sites start heating up with demands for official responses, or when we need to make extremely tough calls to Next of Kin, a completely different part of our brain is activated and takes over. A cascade of involuntary neurological and physiological events take place.  Our amygdala ‘hijacks’ our prefrontal cortex which is where our logical thinking comes from. Have you ever wondered why, when you receive very bad news, or experience a sudden fright, your thinking becomes distorted, your breathing and heartrate elevates, your muscles tense and you start sweating?

How does this influence critical incident response? Simply put, when your amygdala is hijacked, you can’t simply ‘wing it’ with kind, measured, logical, considered responses to a critical incident; exactly the approaches that are required to take care of those directly and indirectly involved.

Defining, Planning and Testing is Key

What is the definition of a critical incident in your organisation? Are you, and every member of your team clear on what the triggers or thresholds are for activating your plan?  For example, it may include a fatality, a missing participant, serious injury or illness affecting life or limb, or any other situation as judged by a staff member. This last criteria is important as you want to ensure your field team members do not have to delay any calls for support they make or fear of being judged. One useful approach is to implement and role model an “escalate early, de-escalate later” approach – meaning you actively solicit your field teams to call in early and not wait until they are ‘sure’ the criteria has been met. In critical incident management, timing is everything.

Trapping information early – Early stages

One of the most important aspects to effective critical incident management is to both provide and receive accurate, current information. This can be very challenging in some of the locations we work in. Communications challenges frequently influence the accuracy and timing of information. Simple, quick coding systems for critical incidents can assist this. For example, if a call or text is being communicated from the field regarding a critical incident, the first words may always be, “Base, this is Belinda (name of field instructor). I am informing you of a critical incident”.   In many ways, this may seem formal or uncomfortable however, it is highly foreseeable that the phone can cut out, and the opportunity for information to be trapped is lost.

Additionally, by formally training the brain to have a simple, one-liner to always use in these situations, the brain is being supported to cope under the extreme circumstances it is being placed under. The importance of regular training and testing in these types of ‘short cuts’ with all personnel involved cannot be underestimated.

Trapping key incident information quickly and accurately is also vital. Having a simple template that all staff can use is a suggested approach. Colour coding these templates in a different colour to any other document is a helpful approach to support the work of the brain in accessing them when absolutely needed (e.g. all critical incident management documents are in red).

One example of initial information trapping that both in-field and support staff can use simultaneously is attached here – the Critical Incident First Notification Form.

Far reaching impact

As well as the primary victims involved, the negative impact of a critical incident is also experienced by many others including the group, field instructors, management, colleagues, their families and the wider outdoor community. That impact can last forever. Many practitioners who are directly involved in critical incidents; those people whose job it was to protect and care for their participants but for who that didn’t happen on one day when things went horribly wrong, are no longer able to live life in the same way due to the impact, guilt or shame they may feel.  Many simply move away from the job they worked so hard to enter, and one they held deep belief in the value of.

Importantly, the evidence is clear that these people, known as “second victims ”, were doing their jobs in ways that you and I would – to simply explain these critical incidents as a result of the ‘bad apple instructor’ explanation is both inaccurate and insensitive. The old saying, “There but for the grace of God, go I” springs to mind.

By having a well-planned, systematic approach to critical incident management – systems that are planned, tested, and updated regularly, our staff and colleagues will be better supported both during and after these terrible incidents. Opportunities exist now to minimise the personal, professional legal, reputational and other far-reaching impacts, now, well before an incident occurs.


Critical Incident Management – Tasks, Media, Operations

The next series of workshops, on Proactive Critical Incident Management Planning, will delve deeper into the design and testing of context-specific tasks that can support organisations to care for primary and secondary victims during and after critical incidents.  A subsequent blog will report back on some of the learnings and tools available for organisations to consider applying in their critical incident management systems.




Dr Clare Dallat 

Dr Clare Dallat is the Director of Risk Resolve; a service that provides proactive and reactive risk management services for organisations across Australia and internationally. Clare has a PhD in Human Factors and an MSc. in Risk, Crisis and Disaster Management.

She is an experienced outdoor educator and has over twenty years of practice in all aspects of the led-outdoor activity domain, including field leadership, program coordination, through to executive leadership at one of the world’s largest outdoor education organisations.

Clare has performed subject matter expert duties, investigated serious incidents, developed risk and crisis management frameworks, and contributed to policy development for education and recreation outdoors. She is an Accreditation Council member for the Association for Experiential Education and is an adjunct with the Centre for Human Factors and Sociotechnical Systems at The University of the Sunshine Coast.

Clare writes and presents frequently on led outdoor risk management nationally and internationally. In 2018, she won the prestigious Reb Gregg Award for exceptional leadership, innovation and contribution to international wilderness risk management.

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