Why Outdoor Recreation Management students must become pros at evaluating risk

“Students will understand incident prevention, apply effective risk management practices, and display solid judgment and decision-making,” reads the Lees-McRae Outdoor Recreation Management (ORM) statement on risk management, one of seven goals for the Lees-McRae ORM program. Of the seven goals, risk management is perhaps the one that most effectively ensures the achievement of all the others and allows for each student to earn the experiential education that makes the college’s ORM program so special.

Being an ORM student is not all scaling rock walls and leading hiking excursions. Before stepping outside for their next great adventure, ORM students must put in a lot of preparation and planning to ensure their outings are fun and safe for all involved. This preparation, known as risk management, is baked into every class taken by students in the ORM, Wilderness Medicine and Rescue, and Ski Industry Business and Instruction programs, and starts from their first day in the classroom as freshmen.

“Everything that we do in the outdoors is inherently dangerous, so we can’t eliminate risk, but we can do a lot to reduce it, mitigate it, and prepare for the risky activities that we do,” Program Coordinator for ORM and Wilderness Medicine and Rescue Katie Wall said. “When we’re taking out different populations of people, whether it’s beginners, disabled folks, a retiree, or a kid, we have people’s lives in our hands, so it’s our responsibility to make sure that we are planning thoroughly the activities that are going to take place. We want the students to understand the holistic approach that it takes to make sure you have a thorough risk management plan and have a risk management thought process moving forward.”

Not only is some level of risk inherent to all outdoor activities, but in some ways, it is an essential tool for achieving the learning outcomes of the program. As explained in the program’s Risk Philosophy, “when risk is managed appropriately, it can benefit students by allowing them to experience the natural world while expanding personal limits.” To instill these skills in students, Wall said risk management is built into the curriculum in three primary parts: pre-trip planning, mastery of technical skills, and incident response. While all three phrases are important, the bulk of the students’ time and attention is dedicated to pre-trip planning. Even a one-day trip requires extensive planning by professors and students to ensure that the excursion is safe for all involved.

Wall said students begin learning about risk management planning in lower-level courses, where ORM instructors talk to them about the behind-the-scenes process that goes into trips like the Outdoor Retailer and western resort excursion and the ocean technical skills training trip. Later in the program students are involved in this planning process themselves and must consider questions like who is going on the trip, any medical conditions or allergies, skill level of all attendees, weather and terrain conditions at each destination, and more. Here the students have a hand in ensuring their own safety and must manage the risks they and their classmates may face on their educational journey.

“There are a lot of levels. There’s the pre-trip level, then there is the understanding of the actual technical skill because if you can perform the technical skill well, then you’re less likely to have an accident. Then we go even further to the certifications. We do pre-trip, we do technical skills, we do in-the-field work, and then we do accidents,” Wall said. “In the class they end up diving really deep into risk management theory, and they assess different facilities. Part of their big presentation is reviewing all our programs’ standard operating procedures, providing feedback, and editing it if we introduce a new technical skill. We try to give them a lot of real-world work when it comes to risk management.”

Because of the inherent risk involved in all kinds of physical and outdoor recreation, risk management is one of the most important tools that ORM students have in their arsenal when they begin working in the field leading expeditions and guiding groups of adventurers. When ORM alumni leave Lees-McRae and begin their careers in the outdoor industry, many of them become adventure guides, taking eager explorers on zipline tours, canoeing excursions, and more, and the safety of those on the trip is now in their hands. The hands-on risk management training they gain throughout their time at Lees-McRae can make the difference not only when it comes to landing a job, but also in protecting those in their group and ensuring that everyone has the opportunity to enjoy the great outdoors.

By Maya JarrellSeptember 20, 2023