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Mitigating Risk in the Field: What is Your Emergency Plan?

Feb 21, 2020 |

Tips and Resources

| by Christa Markley

As an educational travel planner, it can be daunting to think about health and safety issues that might arise when your students are traveling in the field: the world suddenly seems like one big booby trap.

Schools are continuously looking at how to make their programs as safe as possible, while still offering the important benefits of helping students become more globally minded with field-based learning. Every organization and leader should review health and safety concerns before departure, and have a plan in place in case of emergency. Not only is a crisis response plan a "must," many schools have designated or hired a staff member whose job it is to oversee the plan.

Why is this more important than ever?

While it may seem like the increased attention on risk management is a result of an onslaught of fearful news from around the world, the trend is actually a result of the fallout from the “Hotchkiss Case.” In July 2017, a jury upheld the $42 million case against The Hotchkiss School for not taking proper precautions on a 2007 China trip, therefore making the school liable. Not only are responsibility statements revised to mitigate liability, but more attention is now dedicated to better preparing students for the field. For staff and trip leaders, this outcome also involves devising a detailed plan in case of an emergency.

Preparing for the field

When planning for possible health and safety issues, it makes sense to start with the easily identifiable – and therefore easily circumvented. This usually depends on your destination and itinerary – if you’re traveling to a tropical location, advise that your travelers bring plenty of sunscreen and bug spray, as well as breathable clothing, sure-footing shoes, and a water bottle to stay hydrated.

It’s also a good idea to review your itinerary and gather relevant contact information that can be distributed to students and parents alike. Dedicate time with your travel provider to go over the itinerary and raise questions about safety details. When you’re gathering important contact information, include nearby hospitals, police stations, and embassies – not just your accommodations and travel providers. Consult the U.S. State Department’s travel website to stay informed of any risks or advisories that might affect your travel plan.

Expecting the unexpected

But what about incidents that aren’t preventable with preparation? It’s inherently more challenging to troubleshoot hypothetical situations. At the same time, it’s tremendously helpful to outline “if…then” scenarios and document the recommended actions in your crisis management plan. It can be difficult to keep a cool head in an unexpected crisis, but preparing a kind of checklist or flowchart in advance can make all the difference.

Emergency issues can include a wide array of areas, from traffic incident with bodily injury to a major illness. There can also be unplanned weather issues, political unrest, theft, alcohol abuse, or sexual assault. Some of these might pertain to your program, and others won’t. Identify the relevant risks, recommended actions, and possible outcomes. What steps need to be taken to ensure student safety? Who needs to be contacted in the event of emergency?

Putting together your emergency plan

The important components of an emergency plan are detailed below. The plan itself should be specific to your itinerary, but you can use a template that can serve as a “fill in the blank” outline. Develop your plan 2-3 months in advance of departure.

  • Provide trainings – Gather school officials, trip leaders, and students for training prior to departure so that everyone understands their roles and what may be needed in a crisis situation. The amount of the training can vary based on the trip field conditions and location.

  • Review insurance – Include insurance policy coverage in your plan, as well as procedures to ensure that medical emergencies are covered. In the event of any emergency, pay attention to the sequence of events and take notes for documentation to minimize “red tape” later on.

  • Discuss itinerary details with your travel provider – Before departure, meet with your travel provider to discuss any health or safety concerns particular to the itinerary. Make sure their local guides are certified in CPR, in possession of a first aid kit at all times, and trained in emergency protocols. Gather local resources for emergencies by location (hospitals, embassies, local police, etc.) and include these in your plan.

  • Create a packet for field leaders – Ensure that field leaders have all relevant information for various crisis situations. This might include trip-specific risks and resources, key school contacts, insurance information noted above, student forms and health information, and other protocols.

  • Be clear about phone policies – Give clear instructions about how cell phones should be used in the field, so that cell service arrangements can be made in advance. While you don’t want phones to be a distraction, they can serve as an important resource for contact and emergency field information. Many schools require trip leaders to have international calling plans or even satellite phones.

  • Identify emergency contact procedures – List the key contacts for informing the school and detail the “chain” of calls to staff in the event of an emergency. There should also be a list of contacts for students, and a process for determining who to call based on the situation. Each student should have one or more emergency contact listed.

  • Hold briefings during the trip – In addition to pre-trip safety briefings, find times during the trip to discuss and reinforce basic emergency procedures. Ideally, these should be conducted at each location, or for a few minutes each morning. Confer with your local guide, and take a moment to address your students, pointing out situations that might involve risk and what to do in the event of an emergency.

Safe, not sorry

At the end of the day, risk reduction is more feasible when contingency plans are discussed, outlined, and communicated in advance. While no one has a crystal ball to predict the future, prevention and preparation go a long way to navigating an unexpected crisis.


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