Risk management is the process of evaluating where things are most likely to go wrong, what the consequences of things going wrong could be, and what should be done before, during and afterwards to minimise the chance of an incident occurring.
When an incident occurs, a number of factors typically contribute to the incident. Our role in program planning and our instructors’ role in the field is to be constantly looking for and identifying these factors in advance and mitigating them before they can contribute to an incident occurring.
With our 16 years of operation and more than 90,000 student days in the field, we have an excellent safety record. We’ve had plenty of bumps, scrapes, colds, and stomach upsets, but not one student has had to leave a program due to an illness or injury that they have sustained on the program (a handful of participants with existing conditions have had to depart a program because of their condition flaring up or worsening).
We have had our safety management systems assessed and accredited by the American Gap Association, the Year Out Group (UK) and OutdoorsMark (New Zealand). Assessors have commented that our systems are among the best they have observed.
We take safety seriously and running safe programs is our primary focus. Detailed safety planning is an integral part of our programming and instructor training.
All students are taken through a comprehensive orientation at program start. This covers how the program will run, cultural information, mutual support, personal safety and keeping healthy. We insist upon a few simple rules (program rules and behavorial guidelines) to safeguard students on the program. Throughout the program, students are then given region or activity specific briefings and safety information relevant to the experience they are embarking on.
Program Instructors work to create a culture within the group where students are happy to discuss their health and emotional wellbeing with their program instructors and each other.
When there is unstructured time on a program, we have an intentions system in place, so that the program instructors know what everyone’s plan is. Any time a student is away from the group, they are also required to be with another group member (buddy system), and to carry their program instructors’ mobile phone numbers.
We don’t try to wrap our students in cotton wool, hiding risks from them. Instead, we disclose the risks and give students the knowledge and tools to assess and make good decisions around risk and safety themselves. Program instructors can’t be with every single student 24/7, so we find that by giving students some responsibility for assessing risks and managing their own safety, students are more present, more engaged and more involved in their experience; and therefore more likely to make good decisions, look out for one another, and are less likely to come to harm. Another benefit of this approach is that students complete our programs having acquired valuable life skills.
Our instructors will often sit down with their group ahead of an activity and discuss the following questions:
By working through these questions, we have a dozen minds actively involved in safety management and ready to respond appropriately, rather than the program instructors alone having this knowledge.
Our program instructors hold Wilderness First Responder (WFR), first aid certification and have completed extensive in-house training. They know the appropriate leadership style to use in a given situation. They offer challenge by choice, teach by progression, and pitch challenges at the appropriate level for the group. Our instructors actively work at really getting to know each individual within the group to assist students in gaining the most from their experience.
We employ program instructors who have extensive experience in the countries they are leading. Each new instructor co-leads with an experienced instructor so that one of them has intimate knowledge of the itinerary. Our pay rate is the best we are aware of for gap year program instructors, and because of this we are able to attract and retain outstanding program instructors.
Our program instructors have 24/7 access to the advice of a medical doctor, psychiatric doctor, and physiotherapist for times the group are in a region without ready access to medical care.
The directors of Pacific Discovery have developed and led each program themselves. We have personally met with, vetted and chosen each accommodation, transport and activity provider we use on our programs. This in itself does not guarantee safety, but it does mean that we have a good idea of each provider’s capabilities, and by having direct relationships with these providers, we are able to pass on safety concerns and know they will be acted upon and taken seriously.
Our programs are well structured. 90% of each programs arrangements has been booked and paid for ahead of program start. This means that our program instructors are able to focus on their groups, on assessing risk, and on our experiential education goals, rather than being bogged down in logistical details.
We undertake a safety review after each program. Incidents are logged and instructor training implemented if necessary. Our procedures and the programs themselves are continually being refined.
Our programs have two Pacific Discovery instructors accompanying the group for the duration of the program. Adventure activities and service projects are provided by specialist operators, with local guides, and include thorough safety briefings. We ensure that ratios of instructors to students for these activities comply with best-practice outdoor industry standards. We have never had a serious injury related to the adventure activities or service work we do while on the programs.
An advantage of being a small organization is that we have a strong personal relationship with every organization and operator we work with. This ensures we get the best possible experience by utilizing unique and local knowledge sources, as well as providing our groups with exceptional on-the-ground support.
By being accurate with the description of our programs, and by screening all applicants, we do our utmost to ensure that students understand the nature of the experience and are confident that the program will be a good fit. If we feel that a student does not meet our essential eligibility criteria then we will not accept their application.
Pacific Discovery is registered for State Department notifications and security updates for all countries in which our groups travel. We register all of our US students with the State Department’s Smart Travel Enrollment Program. We closely monitor developments in countries in which we operate, and if we perceived an increase of risk in an area, we would not hesitate to re-route, or modify a program. In the event there is a safety or security issue we would liaise closely with families and keep them updated.