At the end of a portage last summer I met a party of canoe trippers who were beating a hasty retreat. One of them wore a bloody bandage around his right ankle owing to an accident with an axe. This sent a shiver down my spine as I silently congratulated myself on the ‘no axe or hatchet’ policy for our crews.
Our decision not to carry axes or hatchets was not based on fear but the calculated management of risk. As a rule pushing a saw is quicker than swinging an axe, the saw is lighter than the axe and the saw is safer than the axe. The increased risk of the axe would not be offset by its utility. In a situation where we could be many hours of travel from medical attention managing risks like these is no small matter.
Taken to its logical absurdity the most complete and safe way to eliminate risk for a canoe trip is to stay at home. But our goal is to manage rather than eliminate risk.
Another absurdity is to attribute risk management to a fear of being sued. We manage risks not because we fear being sued but because we care about the safety of our Scouts. Scouters who complain that safety is just a vague bureaucratic response to fear of litigation they undermine the program as dangerously as the few Scouters who ignore the rules and infamously end up in the newspapers every year. Any Scouter who ignores safety or training because they think them unmanly or craven deserve to get themselves sued and run out of Scouting to boot.
How do we manage risk without compromising the program? First we must eliminate the largely unfounded and wrongheaded assumption that Safe Scouting is based on fear of litigation.
For example Safe Swim Defense and Safety Afloat training are common sense approaches to managing the some potentially dangerous activities. They were developed to keep our Scouts from drowning. Most of us are not lifeguards or a skilled boaters so we had better know what dangers there are and how to avoid them.
Managing risk and maintaining program integrity is a sometimes delicate balance. We succeed when our actions are based on knowledge, training and experience rather than fear or a distain for the rules.