—Andy Stanley, The Best Question Ever
As a young boy I grew up in a small farming community in Southeastern Idaho. The summers could be hot and sometimes boring. One particularly hot July day a group of my friends and I decided the best way to solve those two problems was to go water skiing–but there was a slight problem—no boat and no way to get a boat and no place to go if we had a boat. Did these small problems dissuade a group of enterprising teenagers? Not in the least. Although we did not have a boat we did have some skis, a rope, and a pickup truck. More importantly, we had access to irrigation canals which had roads close to this haven of flowing water. So off we went. No adult supervision, no permission slip, no real plan except to find a dirt road next to an irrigation canal and to hook the rope to that old pickup and go water skiing.
We made so many “unwise” decisions it is hard to know where to start. No one bothered to look to see how deep the canal was. Why would we? Our goal was to stay on top of the water, not in the water. No one looked to see if there were any obstructions either in the canal or along the road—such as a rock, diversion dam, a fence post, a sign, or even a bridge which could interfere with the skier. No one knew exactly how fast the pickup needed to be moving to actually pull a water ski. We thought thirty or forty miles per hour would suffice. How would we get up on the ski? We obviously couldn’t sit in the water with our life jacket and wait for the boat and rope to line up as we had done on the lake because we did not have a life jacket (personal flotation device) and the water in the canal was flowing, not still. We did not even consider those simple little details because all we wanted was to get on those skis in that nice cool water. We ignored the no trespassing signs and every other danger sign. We did not contemplate how we would stop or even evaluate the myriad of things that could go wrong because the excitement of the moment was upon us. Once the first boy put the skis on and sat down on the bridge, a shear act of stupidity was ready to unfold.
We drew straws to see who would go first, and the rest of us piled into the back of that old pickup truck (another serious lapse in judgment). At the infamous cry of “Hit It!” the pickup truck surged forward, reaching the point of no return in a matter of seconds—actually milliseconds. Consequence control was gone for us and we were not prepared for that second bridge which came upon us quickly. Any of my readers will immediately recognize how utterly ill-advised this course of action was and how wrong it was to put those water skis on and to tie the tow rope to the bumper of that old truck. Warning signs were everywhere, but all were ignored. Why? Because each decision which led to the canal water skiing seemed innocent and inconsequential—at first. But once the skis were mounted and the pickup truck moved forward, we left the safety of the road and quickly reached the rapid conclusion of a dangerous course of action. The momentum of getting those skis in the water was just too great. The consequence now was inevitable and there was no one with sufficient character and good sense to say “STOP!” Just as with most “adventure situations,” a series of decisions was required and making the “right” choice anywhere along the way would have avoided the potential for disaster.
Here are some ideas for how to make better decisions regarding the safety of you and your youth:
- Heed the warning signs. In my case not only was there an actual “No Trespassing” sign, but there were other signs showing water depth. The speed of the water flow, rock- and grass-covered canal banks, the bridge, road obstructions, lack of experience, or even the wisdom of water skiing on a canal were all there but were ignored in the excitement of the adventure. As experience is gained and as training is sought and implemented, leaders are better able to recognize the warning signs of potential danger or excessive risk. When those signs appear, stop and retreat. Let caution hold greater influence than adventure or excitement. How many times do we just not recognize the warning signs because we have not been properly trained or we don’t know what they are? The best place to start learning about warning signs is through training.
- Stay on the path. Or, as Elder Ballard stated, “Stay in the boat and hold on.” Do you ever allow pressure and other demands, whether from competing interests (many of which are legitimate), “summit fever,” or even from the boys themselves cause you to compromise on safety? How many times do we as adult leaders want to be liked more than worry about the ramifications of saying no? How many times are we worried about being identified as the “fun killer,” so we ignore the warning signs of potential risks. How many times do we review the Guide to Safe Scouting before embarking on an activity, or simply shrug and say “that won’t happen to me”? Have we adequately planned for the activity? Are you familiar with the handbooks of the Church and do you communicate your trip plans with the bishop and parents? It takes character to eliminate unwise choices. When dealing with unsafe activities, seldom does one overarching event occur which results in injury. Generally there is a series of what appear to be harmless steps that lead to stepping off the edge. In my case, one was telling my buddy in the pickup truck to “Hit It!” David Lynn in his article entitled “Managing Safety: Three Steps to Build Character in Safety” makes the point well, “Train yourself to recognize the signs that prompt you to act with prudence and develop the courage to turn back to safety.” (Emphasis added).
- Recognize fear for what it is. Fear can be a debilitating emotion. It is defined as the belief that someone or something is dangerous, likely to cause pain, or a threat. However, fear can also be the alarm we need to inform us to stop doing what we are doing, retreat, or re-evaluate our course of action. Normal fear can be a great gift. An unwise decision can produce a feeling that is disquieting, or makes us feel ill at ease. This can be a healthy fear telling us to turn back, to retreat, or to listen. This healthy fear is a gift and is sometimes the Spirit prompting us to stop and think.
It takes some effort to build the character necessary to avoid making unwise decisions, especially given the pressures an adult youth leader has to ensure the youth are constantly engaged in a good time. Looking to the cool flowing water of that canal became an irresistible temptation that almost resulted in serious injury. Better choices would have stopped the impetus of what could have been a catastrophic consequence.
Contributed by LDS Church Risk Management