Adoption of Industry Standards in Outdoor Programs

April 28, 2011

Jim Fitzsimmons
Director, Campus Recreation
University of Nevada, Reno

This article was developed with great assistance from staff and instructors of American Institute for Avalanche Research and Education (AIARE), American Mountain Guide Association (AMGA) and American Canoe Association (ACA). The opinions offered in this article are the result of the feedback from people in the field doing the teaching and program development. Most of these professionals work on both sides of the coin – in the private sector and at public education institutions.

Private sector and university outdoors programs have adopted an obvious and necessary co-evolution relationship, with industry standards generally being established by private sector organizations and then being adopted by university programs. Universities can play a key in role in the development of these standards since the research supporting the standard often comes from the academic community.

Unfortunately the recognition of the need for standards in an industry oftentimes comes after an incident. In recent years more forward looking organizations have tried to anticipate the need for a standard and worked with groups within the industry to develop standards for curriculum, operating policy etc. All industries, including outdoor recreation programs, run the risk of being regulated by an outside entity if they fail to regulate them selves. Just developing and following Industry Standards is not necessarily a panacea for all risk management issues because it should be understood that an entire industry can be held liable for poor standards. What this means is industry standards are living documents that should be reviewed and challenged on a frequent basis to ensure they are meeting the need.

Over the past decade more and more university programs have adopted the curriculum and standards from the previously mentioned organizations. In some areas such as SCUBA there is complete compliance, but in others such as climbing and paddle sports institutions do not see the same urgency or necessity to adopt standards.

Many interesting discussions were held while researching this article. Most folks in the academic community clearly understood the need and benefit of adopting standards but there were some who questioned the benefit to their program and institution. Some felt that industry standards should not be imposed on educational institutions because by their very nature they are not part of the industry at large, and the standards would in fact create a barrier to exercising academic freedom. It was also pointed out by some that the military does not observe many accepted industry standards when training personnel in wilderness skill sets. On the first point concerning academic freedom, it is my belief that this will not stand up as a defense in the event you end up in court. As to the military issue, my experience thus far has been that military training, by and large, is contracted to private sector instructors or they have their own standards in place which many times exceed those of the civilian world.

What are the pros and cons of adopting industry standards? Good question! Let’s look at this from the following perspectives. Programming, Curriculum, Liability/Risk Management, Resources, Public Relations, Health of the overall industry.

  1. Programming is generally improved and expanded when standards are adopted. Many of the students in swift water rescue or avalanche courses will be there because they need the certification to gain or maintain employment. By offering courses that are aligned with a national organization that provide a widely accepted level of training, your institution will be providing the students with what they really need and want.In many cases the calls we receive at our outdoor recreation registration desk start with questions about the course itself. Is this is an AIARE or ACA certified course? Will I receive a certification of some kind? What level of certification does the instructor have? By providing what we call name brand programming we are able to provide a higher quality product that is more appealing to a wider range of students than if we utilized a generic home grown curriculum.
  2. When it comes to curriculum it is hard to beat what is offered through these organizations. In general terms they offer a variety of levels of instruction, the curriculum is sequential, clear and most importantly is updated on a regular basis. New ideas, improved techniques, new approaches to decision making, instructional techniques, technologies and important risk management issues are constantly being introduced. In today’s world these changes take place so rapidly it is very difficult to keep abreast of all the changes unless it is all you do. Who has the luxury of just focusing on their white water program or climbing? Most of us wear many hats and are pulled in a variety of directions. It is in the best interest of the program to adopt a standardized curriculum.
  3. Liability/Risk Management is of course the biggie and comes up in every discussion. My experience is that outdoor instructors are very risk management aware and savvy, and this is a good thing. The bottom line is that if an industry standard exists and you are not following it, and you have an accident – you are dead in the water. Typically this is one of the first things that gets scrutinized in the aftermath on any incident. What was the standard and was it being followed?Keep in mind that it’s not just within your immediate program that this can haunt you. If a student from one of your courses goes out and is involved in an incident that involves a skill set learned through your program, the courts are going to come back to you. They are going to hold you liable for the training the student received. They are going to want to know the qualifications of the person who taught the course, they are going to want to see records that demonstrate the student was taught the appropriate knowledge, skills and abilities, and that the student demonstrated acceptable levels of proficiency in them.By teaching within an accepted institution, using instructors who are certified through a given organization and by adhering to their curriculum, keeping appropriate records and following accepted standards for student to teacher rations etc., you can mitigate against this liability exposure. There are people who may disagree with this and to them the question becomes: would you have someone who is not certified as a CPR instructor teach CRP to your recreation staff? Would you be comfortable walking into court after an incident where CPR was performed knowing that the staff member was taught by a non-certified instructor, following an unknown curriculum without any records demonstrating that the student left the class with the knowledge, skills and abilities to perform CPR?
  4. Resources — A better title might be access to resources. In most cases, to hold a course you will need to apply for a permit (in the case of Federal or State lands) or permission (in the case of private land) These entities and citizens are wise to the fact that reputable programs are taught through national organizations. It is becoming less and less common that the entity managing the land you want to teach on will grant a permit or permission just because you are from Brand X University. They will want documentation of your instructors certifications, require an emergency action plan, copies of the curriculum, a certificate of insurance, and in some cases may come and inspect you during a class to make sure you have the required safety and rescue equipment on hand and that your staff have CPR/First Aid training.
  5. Public Relations — Often your institution will be sharing a natural resource with private outfitters. One of the common complaints from private outfitters is that public institutions are held to a lower standard or allowed to ignore industry standards for equipment and in the area of student to instructor ratios. When a university has an accident everyone suffers. Sometimes private outfitters are hit harder by bad publicity, and face increased insurance rates or public debate on whether such activities that are “obviously dangerous” should be allowed on public land.The ramifications can be significant. Recently one of our most heavily used rivers was in the process of revising its management plan, and the private outfitters put pressure on the local governments concerning this issue. The final management plan implemented effectively eliminated institutional access to the river unless the institution held a commercial permit and played by the same rules as the private outfitters.The most commonly mentioned negative to adopting a national curriculum and standards is the cost. It is expensive to train and maintain instructors and the course materials are expensive. While it is a financial burden, the alternative can be much more costly. My preference is to look at it as an investment that will preserve the life of my program and in the end result in more revenue generation and better learning outcomes for the students.
  6. Despite the costs and the fact that some view adopting industry standards as too restrictive, it is ultimately in the best interest in the industry as a whole and will provide better outcomes for your students and institutions.


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