So, You Want to Train Them Yourself

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Author’s note: This is part two of a two-part series looking at taking the reins and doing it yourself. “So, You Want To Build It Yourself” (Summer 2022) examined course design and construction considerations for DIY building. You will find some similarities between that article and this one and even a few spots where I’ve copied it verbatim. (I said it pretty good the first time, and it is worth repeating.)

When it comes to staff training, guides and facilitators need to be taught how to safely lead their guests through an experience while stretching the guests’ perceived limits and, of course, having a bit of fun. This article aims to help you understand some of the key components of such a training program so you can make informed decisions about which aspects of training you can DIY and which parts you may want to outsource.

I have been working in the field designing, building, inspecting, and performing training on adventure parks, challenge courses, and zip line tours since the early ‘80s, and I started Synergo in 1994. I consider myself a lifelong learner, and I learn best in an experiential way. Maybe that’s why I’m attracted to our industry, or maybe it’s just the shiny carabiners. 

It is my assumption that you, too, have some experience in the challenge course, zip line, and/or adventure park industry. I assume that developing and conducting your own training program appeals to you because you like to save money, have creative ideas, and/or feel pride in doing “it” yourself. 

It’s Important to Do It Right

We don’t see many incidents in our industry resulting from structures breaking from poor design, bad building practices, or heavy wear. We generally have robust systems for conducting a variety of different inspections of our structures as preventative measures. Most of the incidents I see fall into the category of operator or guest error.  

How do we minimize human error? I look at three areas:

• The course itself: design, installation, and upkeep.

• The operational documentation: polices, procedures, inspection records, etc.

• Training of staff: staff training, training documentation, ongoing support and supervision of staff.

For a course to run well, we need to align these three areas and create a comprehensive system to ensure that all aspects work in concert with each other. Our policies need to align with the course design and intended use, and the training needs to follow the polices. Staff training needs to be documented, and ongoing staff performance needs to be assessed and corrected as needed.

Do you need to hire a professional to train your staff? The answer depends on who is asking and why. If your insurance provider requires you to use an outside professional or if your boss directs you to use a professional, I recommend following those instructions. The one requirement bestowed upon us all is to ensure training is done correctly—because a poorly trained staff has serious consequences. For example, staff may not understand their jobs, not take their jobs seriously enough, or not understand how regulations and standards inform decisions.

Considerations

It takes years of experience working with other professionals in the industry, going to other trainings, workshops, and conferences to fully understand the complexities of a complete training program. To better understand what’s involved, here are some things that need to be considered when designing an effective training program for your site:

• Training vs. certification

• Standards compliance

• Documentation

• Manual creation

• Training program

• Training delivery

• Working at height

• Documentation

• High angle rescues

• Retrievals

• Fall protection

• Fall restraint

• Ongoing supervision

• Operations training

• Rescue training

• Employee reviews

• Working in local jurisdictions

• Emergency action plan implementation

• Gear procurement

• Gear use

• Gear inspection

• Gear retirement

• Documentation

• Acceptance inspections

• Commissioning

• Did I mention documentation?

• Competent vs. qualified 

• Insurance / liability

• HR training

• CPR first aid

Let’s look at a few of these a bit closer.

Insurance / Liability

If you are training your own staff, you should ensure you are insured to do so. Taking on the liability and conducting training without appropriate insurance is irresponsible, unethical, and just a bad idea. Talk with your insurance company and let them know your skill set, your plan, and who you are partnering with for different aspects of training. Do not try and hide things from your insurer—they should know exactly what you are doing. Once you are insured, read through your policy, especially the exclusions. Keep in mind that commercial liability insurance for operations may not cover you for professional design, construction, major course modification, or in-house training.  

Competent or Qualified?

You may be a competent operator and trainer, but if you aren’t a qualified trainer (e.g., a person with training, a documented portfolio of experience, and credentials) a qualified person should be looking at your work. If you’re not a qualified trainer, you don’t need to outsource all of your training, but you will need to work with a qualified person at various stages in the process to review your training curriculum, delivery, and post-training assessment to ensure you’ve properly documented all of it. Later, I’ll outline how to create a training partnership between a qualified pro and competent on-site trainer.

Standards Compliance

The first step in building your own training is to pick your standard (ANSI/ACCT, ASTM, ANSI/PRCA). Do not try to follow multiple standards unless you have a very good reason to do so, and can justify that choice with solid documentation. Piecing together more than one standard not only would be a major undertaking, it would invite inconsistency and decision-making challenges.

After choosing a standard to follow, use it to guide the design and implementation of a training program. The chosen standard is what others will reference to ensure you have done what’s needed to keep your guests as safe as possible. 

Curriculum

A detailed curriculum is a must for training. This is the road map a trainer uses to ensure the group is led to the right outcome. The curriculum is usually a few pages long and outlines the step-by-step process. It includes:

• A timeline.

• Skills to be learned in each section.

• Materials needed.

• Details for how skills should be taught.

If you veer from the original training plan, log those changes in a post-training follow-up document. This document will help you remember exactly what, when, who, and how in case you end up in a legal discussion. It is also a great tool for assessing any changes needed in the training prior to your next session.Policies and Procedures Manual

Your P and P manual (a.k.a. “local operating procedures” or LOPs) should be the foundational document for your training and should outline all aspects of a guide’s job. A good one will include:

• Orientations.

• Inspections.

• Emergency procedures.

• Emergency action plans.

• Normal operational limitations for activities (e.g., weight limits).

There is much more to it, of course. It should be treated as a working document that changes and grows with your operation. Update it regularly, and ensure it’s clear and comprehensive. The manual can be digital, but I prefer a physical document that staff can carry.  

It is important your manual is an accurate representation of how you operate and that you follow it in your training. All guides need to read it and have a copy of it to reference (people tend to forget things). Make sure it is reviewed by a qualified person with intimate knowledge of your operations, training, inspections, course needs, gear, etc.

Keep in mind that in the case of an accident, the P and P manual is one of the key documents an attorney will use to assess whether your staff are following protocol on site.

Staff Working At Height

Staff course access is very different from participant access in most cases. Staff need to be trained on how to access the course and most always need different fall protection points and gear than participants. Things like LEAP anchors, load limiting devices, cable-grabs, and access climbing systems all should be considered. 

There is also a different set of rules, standards, and laws for staff safety, which your staff needs to understand and follow. In the United States, for example, operators must be in compliance with Occupational Safety and Health Administration (OSHA) regulations. 

Documentation

Document your training. Do this prior to the training with an agenda, syllabus, and curriculum, and then follow up the training with another document outlining how the training went. This is helpful if there is an accident and you need to prove the guides were trained appropriately. It is also helpful when you conduct your next training to remind you of what you did, how long it took, and how well it was received.

Training vs. Testing vs. Certification

It is important to distinguish between training, testing, and certification. 

Going through a workshop/class with a set curriculum under the tutelage of a qualified trainer is a training. In our industry, this training is often heavy on the experiential activities and a bit lighter on the classroom components.  

Once complete, a good training has a testing program to see how well participants retained the information in the short-term. This is typically done with a written and practical test.

If you are conducting training on your own, you may want to bring in another organization to test your staff once you have completed training. That outside group should follow a national standard and be accredited, thereby providing the expertise and liability coverage you need to ensure your training was successful.

Certification is different. For a true certification, the group performing the formal assessment needs to follow a model that is recognized by a larger organization. This typically means the group offering the assessment has gone through a peer review process ensuring their testing procedures follow a recognized set of guidelines or standards. Anyone can fill out a form and say you are certified, but if there is no organization recognizing that certification then it is just a fancy piece of paper.  

Assessment and Supervision 

We all forget things and get lax over time, including your staff. Most guides over the course of a season tend to start out a bit nervous, then get comfortable and become very competent, and then start to get a bit complacent toward the end of the season. It is important to keep an eye out for this and correct it before problems arise.

To keep guides sharp, perform audits throughout the season. Have a qualified person create a checklist of skills a guide performs daily with a write-up on each skill. Skills could include:

• Pre-use inspections.

• Orientation.

• Sending and receiving duties. 

• Rescue and emergency skills.

• Filling out appropriate documents.

Then, a competent manager or trainer watches each guide go through their tasks during a normal day’s activities, using the checklist to note “good performance” or “needs improvement.” After, the guide sits down with the trainer and goes through the list to get appropriate feedback. Do this process one to three times a season/year, and document it.

Ongoing Learning

If you are going to do your own in-house training as an individual or company, then ongoing learning is imperative. Keeping up with changes to standards, common industry practices, new operational techniques, and new gear are all very important. 

I have been at this a long time, and every year I attend the ACCT (Association for Challenge Course Technology) conference to learn more. I send our trainers to other trainings and workshops, and we create and engage in symposiums to deepen our expertise. As the industry grows and evolves, so must we. 

Some good resources for learning:

• Attend industry conferences.

• Review and give feedback on standards as they go out for public review.

• Read articles such as this.

• Find and join local groups of likeminded people (e.g., in the Northwest we have the Northwest Challenge Course Network).

Creating a Training Partnership

When a site has a competent trainer on staff but lacks the qualifications to design and implement a full training program, it is possible to partner with a qualified company to train staff together.

Generally, these partnerships involve the company assessing the site’s needs and current skillset for delivering training, having the on-site trainer observe quality trainings led by a professional, coaching the trainer through their own training delivery, and then providing ongoing help auditing the trainer, testing staff and updating the program.

Documents a partner might review include the P and P manual, owner’s manual, inspection documentation, gear tracking and inspection, incident forms, and appropriate training materials (agenda, syllabus, manual, assessment process and documentation, expectations, written and practical tests), to name a few. 

To ensure the on-site trainer has a good handle on the training curriculum and the course, a partner should also take the trainer through a training process that involves understudies and overstudies with a professional trainer.

While not always practical to do, I also like it when the on-site trainer does the training and then the qualified professional trainer leads the participants through the testing program. This provides a fresh set of eyes on your staff’s skill set.

The process I’ve described focuses on the site’s current documentation and the individual trainer. When that trainer leaves for another job, the process needs to start over with a new on-site trainer to ensure the new trainer knows what they are doing prior to performing a training on their own. 

Wrap Up 

Training your staff is a great responsibility. It should be done thoughtfully and with oversight and support from a company that has expertise and experience in training. To perform your own training, start with ensuring you are ready to take on this task. It is best done with support from an industry professional. Creating a comprehensive long-term program and a partnership with a professional trainer is the best way to ensure the staff are getting the training they need to operate your park or tour the way it was intended.   

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