Houston, We Have a Problem


The first time you face a crisis teaches you a lot. Maybe you’re actually better at managing an emergency than you thought you’d be. More likely, you’ll discover that some things go sideways because variables creep in. Even if things go well, the odds are that you’ll find things you could have done better—assuming, that is, you actually take the time to debrief and review the case (which you should).

This is why having an emergency plan is so important: If you plan, you can identify the vulnerabilities, risks, and logical protocols before anything happens, instead of being forced to figure them out on the fly.

Insurance provider required. Most insurance companies working with adventure parks require the existence of a plan. “We always ask for them,” says Cameron Annas, CEO of Granite Insurance. “What we typically find is that the plan may have been drafted by the course builder when the course was built—and that’s usually the last time the operator looked at it.”

“The insurance companies want to see them,” agrees Hibbs Hallmark president Robert Monaghan, who writes coverage for adventure parks, summer camps, and similar operations. “Insurance companies have degrees of discretionary pricing, and underwriters are receptive to customers who actually had the foresight to put thought into the program. Lots of clients talk about rescues, but I want to see something more comprehensive—such as fire, lightning, vehicle collisions … and I want to know how they’re training staff, and how much.”

There are benefits to doing more than the minimum. Let’s start with this: The process of creating an effective emergency plan demands that you think about every aspect of your business, because major events are likely to impact many or all of them. The planning process can help identify hitherto-unrecognized vulnerabilities and ways to improve routine operations. We can’t eliminate every risk in active outdoor recreation and education, but we can mitigate many of them.

Additionally, major events at adventure parks almost invariably involve (at some point) outside response agencies: law enforcement, fire/rescue, EMS. A good planning process should involve the establishment of relationships with key personnel at all of them. They need to know what to expect on your property, and they’ll probably be happy to help you develop your plan. Other outside actors may potentially be involved, too—for example, if you operate on Forest Service land, you need to make sure the landlord is in the loop.


Managing an emergency requires people who know what they’re supposed to do and how to do it. Assigning those responsibilities in the aftermath of an event is a recipe for error.

Fortunately, there’s a template for success: the National Incident Management System, and its subsection, the Incident Command System. NIMS and ICS training is available online through FEMA’s website and via first-response agencies in many parts of the nation. Figure 1 shows the basic ICS structure.

Figure 1: Incident Command System Structure.

Consider the various lead roles illustrated in Figure 1. The incident commander is the person best qualified to lead the team. Leadership can change if someone better qualified shows up. In fact, that’s what WILL happen if your incident involves, say, a high-angle rescue and the fire department is called: The fire chief on scene is required by law to assume command. Your team may have better skills to do the heavy lifting, but the chief is still legally in charge, and your staff effectively reports to the fire department, not the general manager. This is one reason to develop an understanding of ICS—even if you set up a different model for your team, all outside agencies are required to use ICS.

The operations lead is the person overseeing the operational aspects of management. The planning and logistics leads may not be necessary in our environment; both roles are really aimed at complex, ongoing emergencies unlikely to occur at adventure parks. But not always. If, for example, your incident required you to call in a crane or bucket truck, your planner would be the one to determine that, and the logistics lead would be the person to get it there. And you’ll definitely need a finance lead. Emergencies are expensive, and someone must be ready to sign checks and purchase orders.

Safety officers keep a sharp eye on the operations folks and are empowered to halt everything if they see something that could add risk for staff or guests. The liaison officer is the link between your team and other involved agencies. The PIO—public information officer—may or may not be your spokesperson, but the role is essential.

Emergency communications. The PIO is responsible for creating all messaging, figuring out how to disseminate it and to whom it must be sent, and continually monitoring and analyzing what’s being said about the incident. Inherent in this role is also ensuring that internal communications efforts—the information given to staff—is in line with what’s being publicly released.
The communications aspect needs to be an integrated, critical component—not an afterthought. In fact, your plan should include a subsection to assist your PIO. It should have emergency media and other stakeholder lists, statement templates, log sheets, and more. It could even be a standalone document.

You don’t have to use the ICS model in your plan. You can adapt it to reflect your operation, or use another model entirely, but it’s an excellent place to start.
What Should Be in Your Plan?

Conceptually, plans don’t need to be complicated. Start by determining what exposures you actually have. Be practical; if you try to create a list of every single thing that can go wrong, you’ll either 1) never finish, or 2) create something too cumbersome to use. For example, it’s possible that your office could be flattened by a piece of Soviet-era space junk, but it would be silly to include that, especially if your plan already includes a section that guides you on how to deal with things if your office becomes unusable for some other, more likely reason.

Consider where you are geographically. Are you in a flood plain? An area prone to earthquakes or severe weather? What environmental risks do you face, and how could they potentially impact operations? Are you in a wilderness setting with the potential for wildlife encounters, or an urban environment that may be subject to civil unrest? Do you operate any attractions relying on electricity?

Your plan should include sections guiding your team on what to do in the event one or more core functions are impacted (see some suggestions in the sidebar)—figuring out how those exposures should be managed, who’s going to do that, and how you activate your team, including calling in additional help.

Many design/build professionals offer guidance with their installations on how to manage situations with specific apparatus; these can help form a nucleus of your plan. But don’t stop with the equipment and ways to manage rescues.

Consider the seriousness of a given situation. Should retrieving a guest stranded 20 feet out from a landing platform be in your emergency plan? That sort of thing happens often enough for it to fall under routine operations procedures. But what if that guest is unconscious? That’s something you might want to include.

The way you deal with various types of emergencies will be contingent upon several factors—including your staff and local outside resources. But the planning process should help you identify them, and determine the best mechanisms for managing them.


Assume your staff will read your plan exactly twice: once when you give it to them, and once when they actually need it. As a result, your plan should be simple to use. It should provide enough detail to remind staffers of what’s expected, but not bog them down with a reading assignment before they get busy.

Suggestions for events to include in your plan. Not all here may apply, and you may have specific needs that aren’t listed below.

Active Shooter
Infectious Disease Outbreak
Catastrophic Injury or Death
Mass Casualty Incident
Catastrophic Equipment
Armed Robbery
Hostage Situation
Weather Emergencies
Data Breach
Ransomware Attack
Business Interruption
Civil Unrest
Vehicle Accidents
Accusations of Racial
or Sexual Discrimination
Social Media Attacks

Additionally, plans need to be updated (you should review yours at least once per year). And you may need to change parts of it. Because of this, it’s a good idea to create each section as a standalone document with a date stamp on it. This way, you can simply replace sections rather than re-printing the whole thing.

Note the word: PRINTING. You can certainly store this information digitally, but there should be hard copies, too. The most beautifully-written plan is useless if nobody can access it because the emergency took out the servers.

Train to Your Plan

It takes a lot of work to develop an emergency plan, and maintaining one isn’t effortless. Train your team so that the plan is effective. Not everyone in your organization will have a leadership role, but everyone who could be tapped for a leadership position needs to understand what will be expected of them—and everyone else needs to be trained in how to execute the activities called for in the plan.

Micah Salazar, VP of operations for the multi-park Outdoor Ventures, says the company’s operating manual is taught to new hires over the course of a one-week orientation. Many of the skills in its standard procedures are directly applicable to emergency management.

Simulated implementation. Supervisors are given deeper training into the emergency plan itself, especially documentation. Next, Salazar says, “we do an annual review and simulate an emergency, with a simulated implementation of the emergency plan.”

Regular training, involving either tabletop exercises or on-course simulations, is important in developing emergency management skills and keeping them sharp. Don’t forget those outside resources, either— your local first response agencies will almost certainly be willing to participate, especially if it’s an active simulation.

And if you do that, invite your local media to shoot the story. They’ll likely accept, particularly if the cops and fire department are involved. Your leadership group will gain experience in dealing with reporters—ask them to put your PIO through the ringer—and you’ll likely end up with a spiffy story about how diligently your team works to make sure customers stay safe.
It’s important to make sure staff stays sharp, so practice at least once per year. If you have high staff turnover, it’s best to do it more regularly.

Having a comprehensive emergency plan helps you keep things organized when dealing with a serious situation. Emergencies tend to be chaotic. But with a solid plan and a knowledgeable staff at the ready, you can have a far higher degree of confidence in successful management.


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