Initial Publication Date: December 12, 2013

Being Prepared for Emergencies

Does the rest of the world know where you are?

A surprising number of field trips depart campus with only the field trip leader knowing the itinerary, the list of participants, and emergency contact information. Someone at your home institution should know who is on the trip, where you will be going, where you are staying, when you are leaving and coming back, and how to contact you in an emergency. If your group is traveling in more than one vehicle, make sure that those in the other vehicle(s) know exactly where you are going and how to contact you if you get separated. Many institutions now require field trip leaders to file itinerary and contact information plus a participant list with a college office before departure.

Are your students adequately equipped?

Ill-equipped students are a potential danger to themselves and can cause endless headaches in the field. It is easy to lose track of the fact that most students haven't spent much time in the field, and many have never even had the experience of hiking or camping. Their ignorance of what it takes to be well-prepared in the field is typically not willful, and most students need help and advice so that they can be comfortable in the field.

Take the time to describe potential field conditions and to give students an equipment list. If certain pieces of equipment or attire are absolutely crucial, particularly for longer trips, take the time to check each student's gear before the trip. Rain gear that was supposed to be waterproof and isn't, for example, can be a disaster. Consider taking a duffel bag full of emergency items that you can loan: hats, mitts, extra rain gear, extra pile, and so forth.

Footwear is particularly crucial in the field, because lack of support and protection can easily result in debilitating injuries that can make it difficult for a student to get around in the field. Bearing in mind the higher potential for foot injuries, consider adopting a policy banning sandals in the field.

Can you get help quickly in an emergency?

In the age of cell and satellite phones, preparing for emergency communications is not as difficult as it once was. If faculty in your department do not own cell phones, consider purchasing a departmental cell phone for use on field trips. Be sure that everyone knows the cell phone number and that the cell phone is always turned on. For remote areas, you can also consider renting a satellite phone for emergencies. If your group is traveling in more than one vehicle, two-way radios are a great way to stay in touch if you do not have more than one cell phone or if cell coverage is limited.

Are you ready for a medical emergency?

Not having adequate medical information for field trip participants can be, at best, an inconvenience and, at worst, life-threatening. A field trip leader should have information on emergency contacts, health insurance, and relevant medical conditions for every field trip participant. Many institutions now require field trip leaders to carry medical information forms for each field trip participant regardless of the length of the trip, because medical emergencies or accidents can occur on an hour-long field trip as easily as on a long trip. Medical forms should be carried in a consistent place, preferably with the field trip first aid kit. And don't forget to include a form for field trip leaders and TAs!! Accidents can happen to them, too.

At the same time, confidentiality is an issue. In order to protect privacy, ask your students to give you their medical information forms in envelopes with their names on them. But also strongly encourage that students inform you of any potentially life-threatening medical conditions. Awareness of a condition such as a bee sting allergy can mean the difference between life and death in an emergency.

In many states, students cannot attend a college or university without proof of health insurance coverage. In states where students are not required to have health insurance, some departments are starting to require proof of health insurance before allowing a student to participate on a field trip. It is important to be aware of whether your institution has a policy in this regard.

Are you or any of your field trip participants trained in first aid? As a field trip leader, if you have never had any first aid training, you should seriously consider taking a course offered by groups like the American Red Cross. This simple step can provide a better sense of preparedness to both you and your students.

Most institutions have specific reporting requirements in the event of an accident, injury, or illness, and those requirements differ for students and employees. Make a point of knowing your institution's current policy and staying abreast of any future changes.

Do your students know what to do in an emergency?

What if something were to happen to you, the field trip leader?? To forestall chaos, every field trip should have a second-in-command designated before the trip starts, and everyone in the group should know who that person is and that he/she has authority in an emergency. Be sure that your second-in-command has all of the information about the trip itinerary, emergency contacts, and so forth.

Students don't always work within hailing distance of the leader, particularly in field camp situations. Would your students know what to do if there were an accident or medical emergency and you aren't around? Be sure to discuss emergency procedures with all of your students so that they know what you want them to do in an emergency. For example, if a field partner is down and disabled, should one of the remaining partners mark a trail out with flagging tape as that person goes for help?

Don't assume that your students are familiar with basic first aid or the symptoms of medical problems commonly encountered in the field, such as hypothermia, heat exhaustion, or altitude sickness. Take the time to teach your students the basics. Remember that most of your students will not have spent much time in the field before. Be sure to talk with them about potential animal hazards (e.g., snakes, bear, cougar) and what to do if they encounter one in the field.

Continue on to Reducing Risk in the Field.