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September 2013

Going Digital

Computerizing accident reports helps ensure that records are complete.

Written by Paul Janoff | 0 comment

It’s a risk manager’s worst nightmare: a serious incident and an accident investigation report that’s incomplete—and illegible. Digital collection and storage of information hold the potential to reduce these issues. A few software programs specific to patrol use have become available, and more are surely on the way.

One can train a patroller to handle toboggans on steep terrain, but it’s a lot harder to train one to overcome decades of poor penmanship. And this is one of the primary advantages of digitizing some of the functions of the patrol: complete, legible documentation of incidents.

Vermont’s Mad River Glen isn’t on anyone’s list of the most progressive ski areas, but patrol director John Ayers is a fan of the resort’s new system, which was developed by New Hampshire-based Trail Check, LLC.

“I can actually read the reports now,” he says, “and the system doesn’t let us close a report until it’s complete.”

Ayers hadn’t even considered digitizing Mad River’s incident reports until he was approached by the wife of one of his patrollers, who had recently left a software firm that specialized in developing systems for medical professionals. He was originally skeptical.

“I told her the system needed to be idiot-proof,” he says, “because when it comes to computers, I’m the idiot.”

Essentially, the Trail-Check system starts with the standard NSAA incident report and can be modified from there. Mad River Glen altered the sequence of the form somewhat in electronic format, so that, in Ayers’ words, it “flowed better.”

From there, each incident report can be appended with photographs, diagrams, witness statements and other documentation—all kept in one place.

No More Longhand
“I got started with this because I got sick of writing stuff out longhand, then starting over because I’d made a mistake,” says Jason Perlmutter, who serves as a combination assistant patrol director and data guru at Mount Snow, Vt. Perlmutter’s first attempts at digitizing patrol reports were aimed at accident investigation, while he was working at Mountain High in California.

“It’s really about consistency and efficiency,” he says. “We were using it primarily for storing documentation. We’d take notes from the hill, then enter the data in the report by going through the different fields and filling them in.”

Perlmutter’s thinking—and his system’s capabilities—have evolved over time. In his view, risk management starts with proper documentation. “Say that you have a lift incident,” he says. “As the investigator, I’m going to want records—maintenance logs, training records, that kind of thing.” By importing routine documentation into the system, Perlmutter says, “records can be accessible and presented in a professional manner if and when you need them.”

Mount Snow’s system incorporates the standard NSAA reporting form, and Perlmutter is currently setting up the ability to do accident investigations on an iPad, rather than taking notes on the hill and later transcribing them or scanning them into electronic format. “We get decent cell coverage through 90 percent of the resort,” he says, “which should enable us to do things from the hill.”

In addition, Mount Snow’s data system was expanded to manage other aspects of ski patrol operations, which Perlmutter credits with improving operational efficiency. For example, patrol supervisors can track the status of any job assignment in real time, from almost anywhere. He’s also expanding the system to assist other departments become more efficient.

Outward Bound
The ski industry isn’t the only outdoors-centric field in which storing incident information digitally is handy. In the outdoor education industry, the approach has been used for almost a decade.

“We set up a national system in 2004,” says Billy Roos, director of safety for Outward Bound USA, the entity that charters and supports more than a dozen independent wilderness and inner-city programs in the nation. “Before, each school used its own system—mostly spreadsheets—to collect information.”

The challenge for Outward Bound and similar programs is the dilution of potentially relevant information. Ski accidents typically occur within well-defined spaces. But outdoor experiential education programs such as Outward Bound occur within a much larger footprint, and have a far wider range of activity and environmental variables.

Roos said that Outward Bound is currently overhauling its system. “The current system gives us some perspective, at least from a supervisory point of view. But some of the current fields are subjective, so the results can be inconsistent.”

The new system will automate reporting and separate factual data points such as weather, timeline and incident type from narrative reports. It’s being set up to demand more detailed, objective information on the part of field and supervisory staff. It’s also being set up to permit incident managers in different locations to work with known information in real time, while an incident is still being actively managed in the field.

In the future, it’s likely that ski patrol and other departments will find new ways to employ digital media to manage operations.