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Managing Risk in the Outdoors

An Interview with Gil Hallows

Wilderness programs can effect profound changes in troubled
youth. Participants learn through direct experience the
consequences of their own behavior. However, a balance must
be achieved that allows the wilderness to provide an environment
that cannot be manipulated while not compromising the safety
of the participants. At Aspen Achievement Academy safety
always takes precedence over natural consequences. Because
nature is itself sufficient teacher; there is no need to allow any
situation to progress to a degree that might put participants at
risk of injury or illness. By keeping risk at a minimum, we create
a physical environment where dramatic changes can take place
while keeping the participants as safe, if not safer, than they
would be in their home and school environment.

At the heart of Aspen Academy's philosophy is the belief that
managing risk takes precedence over every other consideration,
including budgetary considerations. To maintain the exemplary
record of the program, now in its 12th year, a great deal of
redundancy has been built into the system. Emphasis is on
training, support structure, and back up mechanisms.

The Support Center is "base camp" for risk management. A trained member of the staff is always on duty every day whose primary responsibility is to support the groups out in the field. At least two people monitor the radio 24 hours a day, 7 days a week, enabling an immediate emergency response should one be necessary. While the field groups can make contact at any time should there be a concern or emergency, Aspen's Support Center personnel make contact with Field staff automatically twice a day to get an update on the status of the group and to find out if there are any medical concerns.

The Emergency Response Team (ERT) is composed of all the
leadership at Aspen Achievement Academy as well as support
center and other personnel. They can mobilize and respond to any
emergency, whether it is a coming snowstorm or a child whose
behavior is out of control. The ERT meets regularly to debrief any
incidents they may have responded to the preceding month.

The Medical Staff are an essential part of risk management. The
Medical Director, Keith Hooker, M.D., is one of the original
founders of the Academy. Dr. Hooker was the chair of Emergency
Services at Utah Valley Hospital in Provo and is currently the
Paramedic Director for the Lone Peak and Provo city districts. He
is an outdoorsman himself and has a strong understanding of
emergency wilderness medicine. Under his supervision, Field
Medic Sandy New routinely goes into the field. She and her
assistant are on call at all times in case they need to respond to
any medical emergency. The Field Medic also conducts a weekly
medical inspection of each child.

Wilderness First Responders (WFR), the wilderness equivalent of
an EMT, are personnel trained in wilderness medicine and first aid.
All senior staff at Aspen Achievement Academy must be either a
qualified WFR or EMT. Every person on staff who works with the
children in any capacity must be annually certified in first aid and

To keep all personnel up to date on safety and medical issues, we
have an in-service every week before they go into the field. Issues
related to weather, activity, medication, and safety are reviewed to
insure current competency of staff members.

Aspen Achievement Academy also has an excellent record when it comes to handling risk in extreme conditions. Studies have shown that many of these children are safer out in our wilderness than they are in the streets of their hometowns or the halls of their highschools. In one major study conducted by the Outdoor Behavioral Healthcare Industry Council (OBHIC), it was found that children were more at risk playing high school football or driving in motor vehicles (Table I) than being in a wilderness program.

Because temperatures in the high desert can change dramatically
from day to night, part of managing risk involves protection against
the cold. Students are equipped with appropriate gear, from
fleece-lined sleeping bags to water-resistant ponchos. Footwear is
extremely important in these conditions. Each week students are
given a new pair of both liners and wool socks to keep feet clean,
dry, and warm. Because of potential problems when hiking every
day in cold and wet weather, field personnel take a look at
students' feet twice a day and record their observations on a chart.

On rare occasions a student will try to defy their counselors by
refusing to take the precautions necessary to keep warm and dry
in the cold, wet weather. However, as it starts to get dark and cold, students come into control of their emotions and realize they need to start preparing for the evening. The wilderness seems to have an effect on them immediately, and they rarely put themselves into enough harm that they have to be removed from the field. Group peer pressure often moves a defiant participant to take the necessary steps to ensure his or her safety. If the child's behavior ever creates a safety threat, field staff step in and intervene, moderating the natural consequences. Safety always takes precedence over natural consequences.

Students who participate in the Aspen Achievement Academy's
wilderness program often undergo profound transformations. Nature serves as the ultimate teacher that cannot be manipulated by defiant teenagers. By providing a safe yet dramatic environment
within which to effect positive behavioral changes, the Academy's
wilderness experience accelerates the therapeutic process and
gives students a powerful foundation on which to build a more
positive, productive life.

Table I
Activity Injuries per 1000 Participant Days

Wilderness treatment program for adolescents (OBHIC study)          1.2
Adventure program: downhill skiing                                                        3.28
Adventure program: rock climbing                                                           1.86
Adventure program: canoeing                                                                  1.54
High school football practice                                                                  19.74



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