Sparks to inferno: crisis response tips for student tour operators and activity providers

isolated on white bright yellow sparksSerious fires and explosions begin as a mere spark and the same is often true with major incidents and organisational crises when early signs are missed.

Seemingly minor incidents or complicated customer complaints can develop into serious situations if they are not addressed swiftly by senior management. Such situations can be highly costly – not just financially but in terms of personal welfare, reputation or brand damage, and management time involved in dealing with the response.

All this reinforces a key element of our advice that quick and decisive action is needed to deal with low-level incidents or complaints to ‘defuse’ the situation or extinguish the flames. For most activity providers, group tour operators and schools, health and safety is an important part of what they do. That is why they are usually good at the initial practical incident handling on the scene. However, some may be less strong at dealing with the subsequent aftermath and handling sensitive communications with parents and other stakeholders such as client schools.  These in turn may go to the press, vent their frustrations on social media or pursue a legal claim if they feel their situation is not being well handled.

So what tools are available to help you respond quickly? Fortunately, there are a variety of ‘fire extinguishers’ available and the good news is most are straightforward and easy to implement internally.

Fire extinguisher

Incident reporting systems

It is important that staff ‘in the field’ or ‘on the ground’ have a simple and effective way of informing management when a potentially complex incident has occurred or when a complaint is likely. Some of these staff may not always make a suitable assessment of the organisational impact of a situation but it is important that information is escalated quickly to someone who can do so. Staff should be confident that they will have management support and, importantly, that they are available, including out of hours.

Complaints and incident handling procedures

Most organisations have some form of emergency plan and it is important that this is communicated to all those involved in the process. Plans are best when they are kept simple and use checklists and flowcharts rather than prescriptive paragraphs of text and bullet points. These should be kept up-to-date and cover the full range of scenarios and incident severity – not just be reserved for a crisis event which is unlikely to happen.

Communication plans

Whilst many organisations have a reasonable emergency plan, many are weaker when it comes to external incident and complaint communications. Such a plan should be written to identify the stakeholders specific to your own organisation and set out who will communicate with them and how. Clearly the media is a major concern to most, but social media, customers, families and staff are equally important and cannot be ignored.


Fire & Rescue Services regularly train their staff and so too organisations should provide incident response staff training. Such training can be simple, involving scenario discussions and ‘tool box talks’, or it can involve realistic role play. Lessons learned from training exercises and simulations are invaluable when it comes to dealing with real situations and from our experience are often more useful than some written procedures. Pharos provides scenario-based incident training for clients to test their response in a very realistic but safe environment, identifying areas for improvement.

Ethos and culture

Hopefully your organisation is open and honest and aims to do the right thing by its customers.  This in itself will help prevent many complaints and incidents from escalating into crises. Fear of litigation may prompt a defensive tone but this is more likely to make a situation worse. Similarly, delaying replies to customers or the failure by frontline staff to answer phones will add fuel to the fire.

Professional assistance

Even with the best laid plans a little extra help can go a long way, as one of our clients recently discovered after a customer’s tragic death from natural causes whilst at their premises. By subscribing to Pharos, our clients have 24/7 access to professional advice exactly when it is needed. Many clients use our service in less serious situations which can have the potential to conflagrate.  Recent examples of such less serious incidents have included falls, a child accessing dangerous chemicals and an allergic reaction to food supplied.

So in summary our advice is simple: to help prevent the sparks of an incident from developing into an inferno, we advise organisations to assess what tools they have at their disposal and prepare in advance for a speedy and effective response.  To find out how Pharos can help your organisation prepare for and respond to incidents, please contact us. 

This article is based upon that published by the excellent Activities Industry Mutual in its Autumn 2015 newsletter.  A copy of this can be seen here.