Monday, March 17, 2014

Response & Responsibility


It's been a while since I posted up on here, but some stuff from the past few weeks got me thinking.

'Responsibility' is a bit of a funny word in the world at the moment. There's so many situations where it's both a good word and a bad word, a blessing or a curse. It would be too broad-brush to say that people don't like responsibility, but you do seem to see so many stories in the gutter press where 'responsibility' equals 'liability', equals 'fault', equals 'blame'. Unfortunate things happen, and people look for someone else to shoulder their burden for them, financially at least. Teams of no-win-no-fee lawyers wrangle and twist people's testimony to wring out every last penny, scrying for that tiny chink in the armour/crack in the pavement/missed paragraph in the training document to prod and jemmy until coins fall out. Okay, that's an over-the-top view, and I'd like to believe that the world isn't as full of rabid ambulance chasing lawyers as TV and the papers seem to say, but sometimes it's hard to hold on to that belief.

These thoughts all spring to mind because I'm often in a position where I am, effectively, taking some responsibility for other people. Whether that's as one of the Safety team organisers for the National Student Rodeo, as a coach and river leader with the Leeds Uni Canoe Club, or as a safety and sweep marshal for Rat Race, in some capacity I take some responsibility for other people's wellbeing, as well as my own. Frankly, that responsibility isn't something that crosses my mind very often, because 95% of the time that assumed responsibility never rears it's head. People I come into contact with in the world of outdoor sports are usually very cogniscent of their own responsibilities, they prepare properly, they have the right kit, they are aware of their fitness to take part in whatever event or sport. So my responsibility only arises when something goes wrong, and when that person is, in some capacity, less able to take sole responsibility for their own wellbeing. When zemblanity occurs. When, as they say, shit happens.

So why do I do it?

Frankly, I put myself in that position willingly because, like almost everyone else in the world, I am capable of assessing and judging the risks around me and making a personal judgement on whether I'm happy to accept those risks or not. Because, like most other people again, I'm capable of either mitigating those risks or simply removing myself from the situation if I'm not happy to accept them. Not necessarily because of qualifications or certificates I have (though they have helped), but because of knowledge I have and because of the confidence I have in my own skills and the kit I'm carrying, whether I'm carrying that kit for my benefit or someone else's. It's only a small step up from assessing those risks for myself to assessing those risks on behalf of myself and someone else, assuming that I'm there for a reason and that they're no longer in a position to mitigate those risks entirely on their own.

I don't do it for the buzz, for any kind of power trip or acclaim, though a 'thank you' and a 'well done' at the end of the day is always gratefully received. I sometimes sit at my post on these events and feel genuinely worried for some of the participants. I can manage my own fears and be confident I've mitigated and managed any risks to myself, I can hope they've done the same - contrary to some evidence, in a few cases - and I can hope they get a day of fun, either Type 1 or Type 2*, and feel happy and satisfied afterwards without ever needing my input. If I've spent a day bored, that's kind of fine.

If you're ever a participant in an event and you see the marshals and safety team around, give them a smile, and remember that for them it's often managed boredom. They are sitting doing nothing knowing that if they have to get up and do something, it's because some poor sod's in trouble. If they have to work, it's because bad things have happened, and if bad things have happened to a participant there, bad things could happen to the safety team there as well. They want to be busy, but wouldn't ever want to wish ill on anyone so they can actually do something, because that means maybe putting themselves at the same risk as the first person did. The second mouse isn't always after the cheese, sometimes it's trying to extricate the first one.

And they often do have to extricate that mouse, because a big part of adventure is taking risks. Doing something that scares you is often down to doing something where you're not sure whether you can mitigate every hazard out there, where there is a real fear that shit might, quite possibly, happen. Without the chance of shit happening there is no danger, there is no adrenaline response, there is no excitement. And that is, quite honestly, what a lot of us do these particular sports for. The feeling and the knowledge that we've pushed ourselves, because we've felt that adrenaline response, is what we're after, whether that's at the summit of a mountain, the bottom of a deep gorge, the landing of a jump.

But this isn't a treatise on risk management, irrational fear and adrenaline junkie-ism. It isn't comparing what we do in the outdoors to crossing the road in a 'safe' urban area. It isn't a lecture on kit choice and backups. It certainly isn't trying to convice people to turn to me when the excrement hits the air conditioning. It's just a rambling way of saying that, if you see me in the hills or on the river, I don't want to have to take responsibility on your behalf.

But I will do if I have to.


*Type 1 fun - fun. Type 2 fun - fun in hindsight. Type 3 fun - not really fun at all.

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