Calm under pressure

Emergency simulations for outdoor education, trips and expeditions

According to David Gregory, a simple simulation exercise can greatly enhance a school’s capacity to deal with emergencies and incidents during trips and expeditions.

The problem with planning

If the decades of work in the outdoor education business have taught me anything, it is that no matter how carefully you plan, no plan ever survives contact with the real world.

As we know, whenever we’re doing something outside the classroom with staff, students, vehicles, equipment and group travel, something is bound to go wrong. Most of the time, this won’t create an insurmountable problem, but having experienced and properly trained staff around to make good decisions and resolve issues before they escalate into major ones really helps.

Professional responses to extreme situations

Even then, some incidents happen which are just extreme. Thankfully, I can count on one hand the number of times this has happened on my programs over twenty years. With good people in place, they are dealt with. One was a brown snake bite, the second deadliest snake in the world, one was a bus crash, and one was a snow sport incident. The staff members were all well-trained and we had practised responses for complex incidents throughout the year. This was our job.

In at the deep end?

But are schools similarly prepared? Everyone rehearses their response to onsite emergencies requiring lockdown and evacuation. However, when schools organise an excursion or an international trip, emergency responses may be hours or even days away, unlike an on-campus emergency.

However, I have known of incidents at schools where the majority of staff have had little or no training or experience with incident management and found themselves to be unprepared. These incidents ended up with other unintended escalations and costly consequences, including significant injuries and irate parents on the verge of taking legal action.

Simulated incident training: ‘the stress test’

With experience comes knowledge and schools need this knowledge. Having spent our careers running programs offsite as a fulltime job and knowing firsthand the challenges faced by groups on the ground and back at school when an incident happens, the team at Xcursion decided to design some specific role play training to help put school executives and their critical incident teams to the test.

We called this the Stress Test, putting people into a realistic scenario to which they must respond in their set roles as a team under time pressure, with limited resources and competing priorities. This kind of role play or simulation really puts systems to the test in a meaningful way in advance: you never want to test your systems and processes for the first time as you go through a real incident.

Making it real

How did we approach this? Firstly, our stress tests were customised. We looked at the programs the schools were running, and designed scenarios based upon one of their actual trips or expeditions. We then applied localised environmental and activity risks to that scenario and came up with a progression of events, which would change depending on the decisions which the people make. We then divide the school executive into two teams. One team is back at school responding as the executive level critical incident team, while the other team is on the ground and responding to the incident at hand.

Chaos, confusion and uncertainty

The simulation starts. The teams settle as the ‘trip’ progresses and a scenario develops. With plans to hand, the teams respond. Then comes the first real spanner in the works, adding a complication which either takes away a resource or overwhelms part of the team to the point that they have to start using their critical thinking skills to triage the problems at hand on the spot and without assistance. Throughout the incident, we continue to add in more chaos, confusion and uncertainty.

In ‘real’ incidents, you never know who’s going to arrive at the school demanding a meeting with the principal or who’s going to be calling in desperate for information. How will staff members react under the pressure as it builds? We often take the most senior executives out of the critical incident team as well to test the response of others. This is a great way to test what happens if the principal is uncontactable during an incident.

Throughout this process, we throw in red herrings, more spanners, media chaos, social media madness and just about everything else we can think of to really test a team under pressure. Then, just when you think it’s safe to lift your head above the boardroom table, something else random and unexpected happens and pressure increases even further.

The benefits of simulation

Learning how to respond quickly, calmly and effectively to any incident is important. Putting people under stress in a controlled way means that when something does happen, the team can draw on that learning and experiences from their scenario training and apply this to the situation at hand. This can mean the difference between a really positive resolution for your staff and students or a disastrous one that ends up in court and continues to drain your time, energy and resources for years to come. We all know how draining a court case can be: the first school I worked at was dragged through the courts for 12 years over an historic incident.

Short, sharp and engaging

Training in this way can be completed within as little as ninety minutes. Rather than just wading through a paper checklist in an academic training exercise we have also found the simulation approach to be highly engaging, powerful and one of the fastest ways to identify strengths and weaknesses within critical incident response teams and incident response systems. You can have all the paperwork, but its value can be greatly enhanced by a well organised simulation. By adding stress tests into your annual professional development, your team members will have a much better chance of building the skills and confidence with which to respond quickly and effectively when the time comes.


David Gregory is the Founder and CEO of Xcursion, an Australian-based company specialising in expeditionary risk assessment and staff training for schools both in Australia and around the world.

If you would like to know more about David’s work, he can be contacted at




Feature and support images: by Gerd Altmann from Pixabay
Watch the video for an introduction from David to Xcursion’s online training