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Medicine for the Outdoors
Medicine for the Outdoors

Dr. Paul Auerbach is the world's leading outdoor health expert. His blog offers tips on outdoor safety and advice on how to handle wilderness emergencies.

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Outdoor Education Fatalities


An excellent paper analyzing outdoor education fatalities by A. Brookes was published in 2003 in the Australian Journal of Outdoor Education. One hundred fourteen fatal incidents were reviewed from the perspectives of supervision, first aid, and rescue. There were 2 homicides and seven deaths from natural causes. The accidental deaths included drowning in lakes or pools, drowning in moving water, drowning in open water, falls, falling objects, fire and lightning, hypothermia, and motor vehicle related.

The observations and conclusions were very revealing. Not many, if any fatal outcomes were contingent upon the quality of first aid provided, but better planning for a possible rescue could have saved lives. Fatalities that occurred under close supervision appeared to be unexpected or unpredictable; however it was not entirely clear which situations were unintentional errors versus which were intentional violations of recommended behaviors.

Supervision may deteriorate because of adverse conditions that contribute to an incident. For instance, if the weather grows bad, and everyone is focused upon self-preservation, or focus is lost, conditions are ripe for an incident. Supervision is a specific factor in swimming and other water-related fatalities. This is as much a function of spotting a person in distress as of preventing a lapse in judgment. Loose or absent supervision of teenage boys around moving water or steep drops has been and continues to be associated with fatalities. Bravado is suspected to be a risk factor. One conclusion is that tight supervision should be in place when youths are anywhere near steep ground or moving water.

Not surprisingly, fatalities due to falling objects were not consistently linked to supervision.

Rescues often involve split second decisions and very brief windows of opportunity. Therefore, rescue attempts may fail if a rescue has not been anticipated, with rescuers in place beforehand. The obvious example would be a situation of an overturned raft or kayak in swift water. Outside assistance should be sought early and aggressively. Emergency communication should be tested before it is needed.

photo copyright Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and DJ Wagner

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Dr. Paul S. Auerbach is the world’s leading authority on wilderness medicine.

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