Management of serious incidents

  • Planning
  • Emergency response plans
  • Necessary information
  • Managing serious incidents
  • Communicating with news media

It is important that everyone who is involved in outdoor adventure-based programs accepts the possibility that there could be a serious incident or a fatality during their activities. Understanding the implications of such incidents, the planning which is required beforehand to effectively manage the difficult circumstances, and the actions which must be taken will help everyone involved in a traumatic event.

Death on a trip is usually cited as the worst scenario which outdoor leaders and party members will ever have to face. However, if not well managed, serious injuries, psychological problems or even delays in groups returning from activities can all have very serious consequences for organisations running outdoor activities and the individuals involved.

As in most things, dealing with serious incidents effectively relies on planning, and the level of detail required depends upon the activity itself, the nature of the organisation running the activity and the nature of the participants. Prudent and professional trip organisers consider potential scenarios to deal with the immediate requirements and the inevitable aftermath of a serious incident.


The key areas which planning must cover include:

  • next of kin
  • media
  • counselling and debriefing for all involved
  • documenting what happened
  • legal matters
  • insurance
  • inquests and inquiries.

Developing a set of written emergency response plans for specific programs is essential to satisfactory management of serious incidents. So too is easy availability of necessary information. There is simply not the time to be searching for phone numbers and contact names, nor for making major decisions such as what legal assistance you require and who will provide it, while under the pressure of a serious incident or death.

Emergency response plans

Emergency response plans typically cover the following:

  • emergency contact system details and operations
  • police and other emergency service contact details
  • protocols for contacting and obtaining emergency service assistance
  • responsibility for contacting next of kin
  • counselling and debriefing procedures (who, when, who organises, etc.)
  • media liaison responsibilities and contact details.

Necessary information

It is impossible to manage a serious incident if the necessary information is not readily available. The information required will include:

  • names, addresses and contact details for all participants
  • names, addresses and contact details for next of kin for all participants
  • names and contact details for staff and leaders
  • names and contact details for emergency services (police, state emergency service, etc.)
  • names and contact details for professional services which may be required (legal, counsellors, etc.)
  • organisational contact details (e.g. board members, chief executive officers, etc.).

Managing serious incidents

First priority tasks—immediate

  • make sure the field situation is secure to prevent any further damage or consequences
  • ensure all relevant emergency services are contacted
  • notify next of kin
  • notify necessary organisation personnel (school principal, CEO, etc.)
  • notify other administrative staff as required.

Second priority tasks

  • notify insurance company
  • review field needs
  • set up system for news media liaison.

Third priority tasks

  • review plans and activities scheduled for administrative personnel and adjust priorities, as a serious accident will pre-empt all routine matters
  • notify any remaining organisational personnel (other staff, teachers, board members, etc.)
  • notify others who may become concerned (e.g. parents of other students, people on other activities)
  • implement the reporting process.

Securing the field situation
Ensuring that no further damage or complications occur is a very high priority. Leaders, party members and emergency service personnel will usually do this. Reassess planned activities and adjust if necessary to avoid subjecting group members, relatives and others who may be involved to further unnecessary stress. Plan for creative ways to proceed; terminate the trip only as a last resort, as more positive alternatives are almost always possible. Assess needs of all involved for physical and emotional support. Arrange for someone senior from the organisation to go to the scene immediately to attend to this, and to facilitate reporting and documentation. Make certain all affected legal and land management authorities are notified. In the event of a fatality, wait for legal authorisation (usually the police) before moving the body. Arrange for all relevant photographs before the body is moved.

Notifying next of kin
This is the most crucial of the immediate follow-up procedures after a serious injury or fatal accident and also the most distressing both to contemplate and to do. An appropriate senior person from the organisation sponsoring or running the activity is generally in the best position to do this. However, timeliness is critical, and the best person available at the time will nearly always achieve a better outcome than a more appropriate person who cannot undertake the task for two days. Promptness is absolutely critical, as delays will almost certainly lead to suspicions or other bad feelings.

Sensitivity to the feelings of the family is the foremost consideration. Think through what will be said before contact is made. Have your facts organised and accurate and be sure to convey whatever personal condolences might be appropriate. Remember that the next of kin have a right to all factual information pertaining to a serious accident, but as the initial notification will be received with surprise and shock don’t expect to convey many details until a follow-up call. Be conscious of the timing of your call and try to think through what the recipient might be doing, for example, at work, sleeping, etc. Try to anticipate possible responses and prepare accordingly.

Other actions which may be appropriate include:

  • inviting family representatives to come to the organisation, or the accident scene, at the organisation’s expense
  • having a staff member who has first-hand knowledge of the accident make a follow up call
  • having a school representative visit the family at their home
  • arranging for others involved with the organisation to reinforce communications, but be careful of extraneous or uncoordinated efforts.

Reporting and documentation
Make certain that written accounts, complete with dates and times are obtained from all witnesses, affected students and staff as soon as possible. Prepare a detailed factual report within seven days. This should avoid judgements, conjecture, analysis, or conclusions. Submit the report to legal personnel for review and revision. Submit the revised report to any necessary organisational groups for review, revision and recommendations.

Communicating with news media

Serious incidents are likely to attract the attention of the news media, particularly if a well-known organisation or person is involved, or if there is a fatality. Successfully handling media enquiries is both an art and a science. There are skills which will assist and there are guidelines which, if followed consistently, will present the story in the best possible light. It is not difficult to think of circumstances where media have been poorly handled, and the public perception of an organisation, person or activity has been adversely affected.

It is sad but true, bad news sells papers and attracts television viewers. Think about holiday stories; it is the disasters which are interesting, not the wonderful relaxing holiday where everything went perfectly. So it is with news media.

There are a number of basic rules in dealing with the media which will significantly reduce the chance of damaging publicity. These include:

  • There must be one point of contact for the media—one and one only.
  • This person must be sufficiently senior to have the authority to speak on behalf of any organisation involved, having a sufficient breadth of understanding of the total operation, as well as the specific incident.
  • This person must be capable of remaining calm under pressure. The ability to ‘think on their feet’ and retain a caring attitude is important.
  • Never present facts without checking they are accurate.
  • Never tell untruths or lies—you will be found out. The consequences of having to retrieve a situation from misleading the media will be vastly more difficult than if the factual situation was explained in the first place.
  • If the answer to a particular question is not known at the time, offer to find out the relevant information and get back to the representative. Make sure you do.
  • Never ‘go to ground’ and refuse to comment. The media will conclude there is something to hide. If the media believes there is a story there, they will say so. How can you expect your point of view to be broadcast if you do not explain it?
  • If information must be withheld, always give the reason (e.g. next of kin have not yet been notified, doctor’s orders, etc.).
  • Be polite and answer questions simply and factually, avoiding speculation or conjecture.
  • Never speculate on blame or responsibility. Stick to the known and verifiable facts.
  • The objective is to have a one-day story and avoid a series of headlines over days or weeks. To achieve this, as much detail as possible must be provided as early as possible, subject only to protection of those directly involved and legal considerations.

Handling the media well requires practice, and it is easier to practice when the going is good than when the going is tough. If you are part of a high profile organisation, establishing good relationships with the media before something goes wrong will be a great help. This includes releasing stories of interest and making contact with journalists who cover your field of operations. If relationships are already in place, and your organisation has a reputation for being helpful and truthful, you will be in good stead if something goes wrong in the future.

Debriefing and counselling
The benefits from debriefing after a serious incident are now firmly agreed by all who have examined recovery processes in survivors. The extent and who is best to handle it will depend on the seriousness of the incident. The more serious, the greater the need for professional assistance. The sooner after the incident that debriefing commences, the better. Most psychological research suggests that debriefing and counselling commencing within one or two days is the most effective after fatalities.

What the media will want to know

  • What happened
  • Where it happened
  • When it happened
  • Who was involved—names, personal data not only of injured but also rescuers
  • Why it happened
  • Background on the organisation—the activity, safety records, etc

Ours is a society which denies death, and unexpected sudden death, without illness to prepare us, is hardest of all to cope with. Elizabeth Kubler-Ross (1970, 1974) is one of the most respected authors on this difficult subject and is well worth seeking out.

The possibility of a fatality in an adventure program is a reality that must be faced. All responsible programs must be completely and adequately prepared to deal with this possibility. The tragic effect on so many people will never be erased or forgotten.

Further reading

Kubler-Ross E. l970. On Death and Dying. Tavistock Publications Ltd., London.

Kubler-Ross E. 1974. Questions and Answers on Death and Dying. Macmillan Publishing Co. Inc., New York.