Risk Management

risk management in scouting

​​​Jim Hellwege, Vice Chair for Risk Management

Author: Risk Management in Scouting – Essentials for Leaders

Contact info:  jhwege@aol.com


For more information on risk management, please see this website: www.riskmanagementinscouting.com

Risk Management topics and issues as well as updates from the council on risk management topics and changes.

Here’s a recent article from Backpacker magazine about a lightning incident encountered by a Scout group in the mountains of Colorado, where “summit fever” almost resulted in serious consequences.  http://www.backpacker.com/2012-january-reader-survival-lightning/survival/16230

Also, NOLS (National Outdoor Leadership School) recently published a new handbook on Lightning safety by John Gookin, an acknowledged expert in the field.  http://store.nols.edu/store/pc/NOLS-Lightning-p1975.htm#.U62DK6iKTN8

Food Safety and Liability

June 2014

A federal district court this recent April held that neither BSA nor NCAC were liable for an injury to a Scout as a result of the 2008 E-coli tainted hamburger episode at Goshen summer camp. I will spare all the details of the misery suffered by the Scout, but he reportedly suffered brain and neurological injury as a result of eating insufficiently cooked hamburger in his foil dinner. The basis of the ruling was that both BSA and NCAC are immune under the Virginia charitable organization doctrine for acts constituting ordinary negligence, but not for acts which constitute gross negligence. The plaintiff failed to meet his burden of showing that providing tainted meat for cooking by Scouts was gross negligence, with the court holding that the providing by NCAC of foil dinner safe cooking instructions to the units and Scouts negated any finding of gross negligence. There apparently was no finding that the unit leaders were negligent in any way with regard to the manner by which the Scout was instructed to prepare his foil dinner. However, is the standard of care restricted to how a Scout is instructed to prepare a meal? Would not the standard of care also require that some effort be made to ensure that the proper procedures were in fact carried out, such as by inspection of the cooked foil dinners? “Food for thought” as we enter the main camping season where patrol cooking (Boy Scouts) or family camping (Cub Scouts) may be prevalent. As they sometimes say, “the proof is in the pudding” regarding whether safe cooking procedures have actually been followed by those doing the cooking. Qualified supervision and the duty of care require that adult leaders ensure that safe food practices including safe food storage, safe food preparation, and safe cooking procedures are all “ingredients of the recipe” (“trust, but verify!). It is no consolation for a leader to tell a Scout that he would not be sick if he had done a better job cooking his food, particularly if the food illness has potentially long-term effects. (This is analogous to telling a Scout that he would not be suffering from dehydration if he had merely consumed more water as he had been instructed, but had not been monitored to see if he had actually been drinking sufficient water). Safe eating to all.

Event planning and positive outcomes

Spring 2015

Some commentators use the “what, when, where, who, and why” questions for outdoor planning. These questions might be applicable to the recent rescue of scouts who were backpacking at high elevation in the Colorado Rockies.


“What” were they doing – backpacking.  “When” were they doing it – early June.  “Where” were they doing it – 10,000 to 12,000 feet elevation in the Colorado Rockies. “Who” was doing it – 36 Scouts and 7 adults (all probably of varied age and experience), and “Why” were they doing it – you’d have to ask them.  Was the event one that conforms to the mission of Scouting, or was it an event that might normally have conformed to the mission of scouting (backpacking), but might no longer have done so under the conditions encountered, and the terrain chosen? Would this have been better scheduled later in the summer? Interestingly, the group relied on a cell phone at 12,000 ft elevation to summon help, who took six hours to arrive, something that cannot be counted on when planning such an activity. A last point to consider – under what type of conditions does a backpacking group of 43 persons become unmanageable such that qualified supervision cannot be properly exercised? Thoughts to consider when planning an event.

Decision-making models – what are they?

December 2014

I recently read an after-action report about an accident involving an avalanche, which report discussed “decision-making models” that could be used by an organization in an attempt to avoid a bad outcome for an activity.  Such “models” may be employed with success by Scouting units in the planning and conduct of their annual outdoor program.  The model employs five “decision points”, namely the following:  (1) decision point #1:  the initial decision to adopt an activity or program location (this decision takes into account the unit’s risk tolerance and program objectives, choosing the least risky location to achieve the program objectives); (2) decision point #2:  the annual decision to keep or repeat an activity or program location (repeating an activity for the sake of repeating the activity may ignore prior post-activity assessments that may require a change in the annual plan); (3) decision point #3: decisions made during the program year (where it is determined if the schedule needs to be adjusted, have appropriate leaders been identified for the activity, do the leaders have appropriate venue or activity-specific experience and skills, whether the activity still makes sense); (4) decision point #4: proximate decisions (the assessment period about 14 days prior to the activity, where information becomes available regarding expected conditions at the location, weather trends, the making of contingency plans); and (5) decision point #5: on-site decisions (the most important decisions to be made are on-site and during the activity decisions, whether the activity needs to be modified or canceled, with such decisions having a short shelf life, and which depend on situational awareness, and human and environmental factors).  Units may find that they use a portion of this decision-making model as part of the outdoor program planning process, but an understanding of the overall process should be useful from a risk management standpoint.

A Personal Message

December 2014

Perhaps to bring a bit of personal perspective to risk management in Scouting, below is an excerpt from a blog written by a Scout mother regarding her two sons’ experiences at Philmont and Northern Tier, respectively, clearly not for the “faint of heart” parent, but reinforcing the fact that it is important to recognize reasonably foreseeable risks, particularly potentially catastrophic risks, to avoid having to make “that phone call”: “I know from experience that sending your child into the woods for an adventure may result in harm. Adventure is impossible without some danger, and it’s this aspect which can be very frightening. At Philmont, my older son was on a bare mountain trail when a lightning storm blew up and lightning struck only a few yards from where he was. Only the quick thinking of the guide in hustling the boys away from their exposed equipment before the strike saved their lives. In Canada, my younger son was in a canoe that was sucked into a strong undertow on a river. He and the guide and another boy were forced to jump out of the canoe before going over a 12 foot waterfall, after which he was sucked into a hydraulic for what seemed to be forever, but was probably under a minute [easy for mom to say!]. All the things in his pockets were sucked out and lost, and the boy with him actually lost his pants. The only injuries to my son were deep abrasions and bruises on his legs. They took months to heal completely. Their canoe looked as if it got hit by a rock and pried open with a can opener. Shocking to think that my son endured the same forces which so twisted and damaged reinforced aluminum.  At the airport I met the gaze of the Assistant Scoutmaster leading the group as he told me with horror of my son’s near-death experience, and recounted with equal horror how hard it would have been to break the news of HIS son’s death to his wife, as his son was the other boy in the canoe. He was filled with remorse for something that was not his fault and beyond his control and which had in the end caused no lasting harm. It’s a hard thing, being responsible for the safety of other people’s children beside your own.”  There is sometimes a fine line between a successful trip and catastrophe as shown by the above.  Safe Scouting.

Are you meeting your standard of care toward your Scouts?

October, 2014

All units should recognize that they owe a “duty of care” to their youth.  But the duty of care is accompanied by a “standard of care” – i.e., those steps taken by a unit to meet its duty of care.  Failure to meet the requisite standard of care may result in injury (or worse) to a youth, leading to court.  A Florida case involving the death of a scout due to heat illness during a twenty mile hike in the Everglades reinforces this point.  The complaint filed in connection with the resulting lawsuit against the scout leaders listed the following alleged breaches of the standard of care toward the scout:  planning and conducting a 20 mile hike in 100 degree weather, failing to obtain proper weather information on the day of the hike, failing to follow BSA guidelines, failing to undertake proper training for leading minors on a hike, failing to recognize the signs and symptoms of heat illness, failing to take proper action after the scout exhibited signs of heat illness, continuing the hike after the scout showed signs of heat illness, failing to have proper communications equipment, failing to have proper equipment for the hike, failing to recognize an emergency situation, failing to ensure that the scouts were properly hydrating themselves, failing to conduct proper emergency planning, and failing to adhere to Trek Safely guidelines.  This case makes clear that the standard of care, irrespective of whether the planned event is a hike, a campout, a ski trip, or canoe trip, is a foundational aspect of risk management planning for the event. Otherwise, lawyers will use their creativity to make lists such as the above.  Safe Scouting!

Are we sufficiently skilled for paddle sport programs?

September, 2014

The August 2014 issue of Boys’ Life contains an article titled “The Wild Wild North”, describing a California troop’s eight day trek last summer through Bowron Lake Provincial Park in British Columbia.  Interestingly, the trek followed a number of interconnected lakes and rivers which form a rectangle of sorts, so that the group was able to travel from one point along the rectangle to end up at the same point. The Bowron Lake area is apparently one of the top wilderness canoe trek venues in the world. And wilderness it is, on the western edge of the Canadian Rockies, with all of the risks of wilderness canoeing, including cold water, unpredictable weather, large waves, etc., as noted in the article.  I note with interest that the troop ‘s preparation included a Sacramento, California American Red Cross canoeing course, which according to a participant, taught different kinds of strokes, how to paddle efficiently, and how to do canoe rescues.  The “fundamentals of canoeing” course which the group presumably participated in (according to the Sacramento Red Cross website) included a Friday evening session at a local pool, and fourteen hours of weekend instruction on a local lake.  In other words, the troop did not rely solely on a scout having earned canoeing merit badge as sufficient training to participate in a challenging wilderness canoe trek.  And, with everyone having taken the same course, they were all on the same page skills-wise. I note that from its website that the Sacramento Red Cross Chapter also provides classes in  river and whitewater canoeing.  Aside from the Red Cross, the American Canoe Association provides instructors for groups seeking to enhance skills in paddle sportshttp://www.americancanoe.org/?page=Find_Instructors. While not mentioned in the article, I would assume that CPR training would have been included in the group’s preparation, not to mention BSA Paddlecraft safety training by the adults (a course frequently offered at summer camp for attending adults).  Yes, such training potentially takes time away from lacrosse, football, baseball, rugby and soccer, to the possible irritation of parents and coaches, but as one scout said in the article, “The waves were pretty big, and right then I was thinking, I don’t want to do this”.   At that point, the training that Scout received was probably life-protecting training, and time well spent.  Safe boating to all!

Canoeing in High Adventure


On Thursday, June 12, 2014, a crew of eight originating from BSA’s Northern Tier base encountered 30 mph winds and heavy waves while canoeing in the Boundary Waters. Two of their three canoes swamped in the waves, putting five of the eight crew members in the water. The crew members in the third canoe were able to seek shelter on a nearby island after having been driven there by the winds. Assistance was requested by satellite phone, and all crew members were ultimately rescued. The crew was able to pinpoint its position with a strobe light, which rescuers said was instrumental in being able to locate the crew along the heavily-forested shoreline (helpful hint there). The air temperature was reported to be in the 40s. One commentator stated that the water temperature “may have been warmer than the air temperature”, which probably means the water was fairly cold given the early June timing for the trek. In response to my inquiry, Northern Tier base had no idea what the water temperature was, which might be a good thing to know in the event your crew members end up in the water for any length of time. The local Sheriff’s Office stated “Weather conditions were less than favorable for being out on big water, and the high winds and big waves and big open water were not good conditions for boats, let alone canoes”. This story has a favorable ending, but that may be small consolation to those crew members who spent time in the cold water under tough conditions trying to survive, not to mention being stranded on land under hypothermic conditions awaiting rescue. A reminder to future Northern Tier participants that: (1) Northern Tier requires all crew members to wear boots while canoeing, (2) Northern Tier requires participants to be pre-cleared for swim ability prior to arrival, and (3) Northern Tier apparently does not spend time teaching in-water swamping or canoe rescue skills prior to departure. If you have a crew attending Northern Tier for a canoe trek, would your crew be comfortable swimming in boots if dumped into the water, would their swim skills in a cold lake match the pre-clearance form (particularly for adult advisors), and would your crew have the ability to self-rescue if one or more canoes swamps in heavy waves, or would that be the first time a crew member was in a swamped canoe while suffering the shock of suddenly being in cold water? The story seems to suggest that once your crew swamps you may require and have available to your crew immediate rescue assistance, but there will be circumstances when self-rescue is necessary. If the crew had not had a satellite phone, what would they have done? Was that part of the planning process? And, more importantly, would your crew be able to make those decisions that would enable the crew to avoid being in canoes on a large lake under 30 mph winds and temperatures in the 40s (particularly if the margin for error is that small)? Things to think about.