Managing a serious school coach crash in France
A personal perspective
Managing a serious school trip coach crash in France – a personal experience
What is it really like to receive that dreaded call at 2am with news of a nightmare coach crash?
We’re used to discussing and managing accidents. It’s what we work hard to to prevent, prepare for and respond to on a regular basis, supporting our clients across the education, youth, adventure and travel sectors.
Pharos Response is made up of a team of risk, reputation and crisis management experts providing a critical three-tier solution to prevent, prepare for and respond to critical incidents. Naturally it’s far better to prevent critical incidents from happening in the first place but of course sometimes, accidents just happen. When they do, our clients are glad we are there to help.
So, what does it feel like when a serious accident happens to your company, youth group or school?
A Pharos client who was in that very position offers a personal account of their experience in responding to everyone’s nightmare, a coach crash.
A school coach crash from a travel company leader’s perspective
Would you be ready for this call?
I was asleep. It was 2am on a Saturday and my phone rang. It was a call from a colleague with an initial report that a coach had rolled onto its side on a French motorway. It was one of our customers – a school – which meant a coach full of children and teachers. A long-standing customer we knew personally so visualising them in such distress while in our care was horrendous.
There was no more news at that stage. We didn’t know the scale of injuries or fatalities. That night I discovered what ‘shock’ actually feels like. Would there be any survivors? The immediate photos seen on social media didn’t look good.
Focus. We’d prepared for this. Time to shine. We had the expertise, the experience, done the training, read and published the procedures, practiced simulations and considered the best ways in which to handle a major incident. We had an ‘on-call’ team on standby for such an occurrence.
We were ready… so why didn’t it feel like that?
In reality, nothing really prepares you fully for this moment and however strong and experienced you are as a Senior Manager, your blood can still run cold. Your greatest fear has happened and now it’s time to lead the company and support staff and customers through this difficult time.
So, what was it like to manage a critical incident?
I took a deep breath and started calling around to form the Emergency Response Team, which included someone to prepare for and manage the inevitable and often challenging media interest this story would attract. One of the first calls was to Pharos who provide us with 24/7 on-call critical incident support and we were super glad to have them in place that night! Our team arranged to meet at the office straight away (it’s much easier to be altogether at such a critical time) and formulated our priority actions on the white board based on our procedures and guidance from Pharos.
But it was a lot more complicated than that.
The reality is that none of it happened in a straight, organised line and we had to adapt, change plans and think quickly on our feet. The press were soon calling, staff were asking questions, information kept changing and the news reports were sometimes misleading, factually incorrect and unhelpful. We were on on the phone to the coach company, the school staff on the coach, the school’s Headteacher and the families of the children. There was a lot going on. Our assigned roles helped give this situation some shape and structure to the team and some individual focus, but regardless, it was one of the greatest challenges we’d ever faced.
It took a while to receive confirmation of injuries but, to the surprise of a former road traffic police officer working at Pharos who had attended multiple coaches on their sides, there were no fatalities. It didn’t feel like it but we were lucky. However, there were two children in a critical condition with potentially life changing injuries and multiple less serious injuries. Coach seatbelts really do save lives – the two who were most injured were not wearing theirs at the time and had been thrown meters from the coach in the crash.
We were lucky to have the 24/7 emergency support from Pharos who could provide extra resource, practical help and advice based on experience. The reassurance this guiding support offers when you really need it is incredible. Even with our inhouse expertise, it made a big difference when faced with this emergency. Pharos were able to advise us on media management, which was the area we were least prepared for, and they kept our press releases up to date as new information came in and in response to misinformation reported in the press. These were words I never thought we’d have to write so having someone else to do it on our behalf was a huge relief. Pharos also helped by guiding us through the next few days and helping us to think about things we may not have otherwise due to being in the thick of things. An extra few pairs of eyes and ears and an ‘experienced friend’ who helped to keep us on the right path.
We were working to achieve two main objectives: To protect and take care of our customers, and to protect and take care of our staff and our business. Good communication, the ability to remain calm and objective, to prioritise and multi-task efficiently were all crucial skills during this time.
There was a lot going on in the office. Big decisions to make, serious discussions to have, complex logistics to arrange but then there were the all-important but functional tasks such as ordering food to keep the office team fuelled. Amidst the calls and discussions, there were practical solutions to find such as transport logistics to get the main group home while also arranging for parents to travel out to be with their children in hospital. Considerations you never thought of, such as how do you transport a group of children home when they are still in shock having been involved in a serious coach crash.
It was intense, complicated, exhausting, emotional even (although you try to put that to one side until you get home) and required a high level of management expertise and an element of objective coolness (something Pharos were great at whilst remaining empathetic at all times).
With the help of Pharos and our brilliant office team, we managed to do a good job of supporting the school and our staff through what was an incredibly challenging time for them. Fortunately, due to the high number of seat belts worn and the exceptionally high standard of coach provided, no-one died. One of the two children made a more speedy recovery but the other sadly sustained long term health issues. A test of how well we responded to this situation was that the school booked with us again (huge respect to the school) and we felt proud that we were able to successfully support our customers through this difficult time.
One of the greatest strengths of any leader is to ask for help when it’s required. An even better leader has planned for this scenario in advance and already has the help on hand, ready for such a time.
Having external crisis management expertise available in the early hours of the morning (or at any time of day) is worth its weight in gold. No matter how robust your systems are and how good your team are, having external help just at the moment you need it takes enormous pressure off. It gives you, the leader, that extra time and ability to support your team on the ground, whilst knowing that there are objective experts to refer to, guide, question, write press releases and be an extra pair of hands on the leadership team.
“Pharos are your experienced friend in a crisis. We all need one of those in the event of an emergency, trust me!”.
“If you are ever faced with an emergency, you will be relieved to have Pharos on speed dial”.
Find out more about this incident:
To read more about this incident and how it was managed you can read this article: https://pharos-response.co.uk/case_studies/coach-crash/ .
Whether you’re a school leader, adventure operator or youth manager, receiving a call at 2am to tell you that a coach full of children has been involved in a serious accident is one of the worst calls you will ever receive.
Being prepared for this moment is very important, but having the right people in place to manage the incident, at the right time is even more so.
Emergencies happen when we least expect them. Having external support in place means that along with your own team (who will hopefully be available when you need them), you’re guaranteed to have experts on hand 24/7. Imagine if you were at a family wedding or overseas on holiday when an emergency occurs? Imagine if your key leaders were unavailable in that moment. What would your team do?
Buying in the expertise of a company like Pharos Emergency Response means you will always be better prepared for any unexpected crisis that might come your way – and its not as expensive as you might think.
As part of their risk and reputation management services, Pharos offer a unique 24/7 response retainer service that enables their clients to reach immediate telephone support to manage major incidents or emergencies. Their services include highly experienced, practical crisis support such as strategic incident management mentoring, crisis PR, crisis social media monitoring, trauma counselling, health and safety advice and incident investigations.
Please note that Pharos only provides incident assistance to retained clients who subscribe to the annual 24/7 Response service.