What to look out for when choosing an adventure vendor? We've all seen repeated news videos of a recent accident at a Noida mall launch where a ‘stuntman' fell to his death while rappelling down the facade of the mall. Most people from the event management industry watched the video in horror. Some of them thanked God that they had managed to pull off similar adventure-based events in the past without a mishap, while some immediately thought of cancelling any such activities planned in the near future.
As we, at Natura Adventure Crew watched the video, we felt a now-familiar feeling of dismay - yet again - at the frequency with which such cases occur and the abject lack of simple guidelines that could easily make such fatalities a thing of the past. Over the last two days, by speaking to the actual people involved, we pieced together what exactly happened. There were many inaccuracies in most media reports. What emerged is a situation created out of mismanagement, lack of protocols and vigilance, and individuals being presumptuous.
Here's what we understand happened:
After a successful inaugural demonstration of a rappel down the mall's facade, the rappelling rope appeared to have been drawn back up to the terrace to avoid it being left to dangle (the obvious reason would be to keep the rope from getting damaged). A few hours after the demonstration, two individuals - one of whom was the late Shailendra Singh Bisht, a trained and experienced mountaineer - decided to rappel down, apparently because the elevators in the building were still not operational. One of them reached the ground as he had intended, while the other lost his life.
What seems to have happened is that while one released the drawn-up rope to its full length all the way to the ground, Bisht may have overlooked the rope's status and begun his descent. Well short of the ground, Bisht, tragically, ran out of rope. Even more alarming than this lapse, is the fact that neither had clipped on their ‘belay', a safety rope, the cornerstone of the adventure world that would have kept Bisht from dying.
At this point, let me assert that my aim in writing this is neither to vilify other operators nor distance my own organisation from others in an attempt to glorify it. My objective, as is of a lot of our competitors, is to try and educate those who hire services like ours in what to look for in an adventure operator. Apart from our in-house maxim of "Any 2 out of 3: Safe, Thrilling or Cheap", there are a number of parameters that hint, right away, at the competence of an adventure operator.
In our scenario where adventure is such a young industry and has neither the right infrastructure to groom excellence nor the governance to weed out incompetence, these parameters are the industry's best bet at preventing a repeat of such accidents.
The following are parameters to broadly, base your choice upon:
Background of the adventure company
How old and big is the company, and what has been its and its personnel's track record? This information will immediately tell you whether the organisation has earned its repute or is it a fly-by-night operation. With regard to its age; the older the better, but beware of companies run by fogeys as the adventure industry evolves dramatically almost every passing season. Sometimes, the company may be a small and new one, in which case a background check can show up the owner's history, whether they were part of any other organisation before this, whether they broke away from another organisation and why.
Most of Indian adventure operators work with freelancers. But as the company matures, the involvement of freelancers reduces or remains limited to very operational roles. It is difficult to maintain protocols and consistency in operation with freelancers. It is, hence, imperative to enquire the percentage of freelancers to in-house staff that a company uses and whether the management and supervision roles are performed by staff or freelancers. The idea here is not to malign the skill and reliability of freelancers, but to warn that most often than not, if an organisation has laid down protocols and procedures, the best people to be mindful of these will be in-house staff rather than freelancers.
One of the dead-giveaways in our industry is to look for a man throwing you a marketing spiel that is full of bravado and devoid of concrete safety commitments. If you come across anyone like this, I'd say its better to be sceptical than gullible.
Though there is no real entry barrier to most adventure operators' associations, being part of one generally makes the organisation functioning at a decent level of professionalism and slightly more accountable, as there is collective information being shared through the association.
Qualification & Experience
In the world of adventure, it is impossible to equate on-field competence with conventional qualifications. At the same time, in several scenarios, a large body of adventure skill-training also may not translate into excellence. It's a tricky one.
Most adventure professionals have quantifiable skill training behind them. Either in the form of basic or advanced degrees from mountaineering institutes or man-hours spent in training in sports like paragliding, rafting, skiing etc. Add to that, conventional education that the individual goes through along with special exposure through avenues like expeditions or international interactions, and you have some semblance of a benchmark.
One thing which is an absolute must, that is recognized world-over is the need of first aid knowledge, if staff conducting adventure activities have not undergone a minimum of a two-day first aid certification, renewed every year, they are absolutely useless. In case of extended programmes like Himalayan treks or commercial expeditions, where you are always at least a day away from the nearest hospital, you need to insist on a wilderness trained first aider. Here, obviously, an added bonus is the level of conventional education the person has, as a first aider without the basic knowledge of the human anatomy is quite redundant.
As thumb rules go, you can watch for the following in the management or leaders of a team conducting a programme:
Expertise: Skill-training background, experience and any personal milestones in their field all point to a the level of competence the person may have e.g. expeditions.
Communication Skills: A confident, communicative, but not necessarily language-proficient, leader on a programme or an event is always a benefit and these traits are also a strong hint of his level of understanding and command of the situation
Management Skills: Any indication of protocols and procedures being present on-site, people performing pre-set roles, presence of on-field documentation like safety checklists, equipment logs, liability forms etc. are all proof that not just are leaders on a programme trained, educated and sophisticated enough but also that the organisation itself would have it no other way.
Add-ons like accident/disaster protocols, insurance liability, evacuation plans etc. all reveal that the organisation is as much of a forward-thinking corporate body as any of best service industry businesses.
Having understood what to look for in individuals in this field lets move on to understand what are the types of vendors that event managers need to hire? Every organisation that works with ropes and heights is not the best to hire to set up a filmed stunt. For example, to pull-off the launch of a car in an innovative way; the VW launch at DLF Building, Delhi, a whole lot of rigging work is involved and would need a structural engineer's input.
For such an event, who should you seek? Stunt men, action masters, stunt riggers, stage and aerial riggers, aerial artists or mountaineers/adventure professionals.
Let's look at these options, individually:
Stunt men and Aerial artists - Stuntmen are skilled professionals who border on dare devilry while aerialists are usually rooted in the realm of dance or acrobatics. Both are capable of performing spectacular extreme action but does that make them capable of a project like VW? Most definitely not, as their skill lies in performance and not in rigging the infrastructure for their own performance.
Action masters - Stunt directors or action master have graduated from being stuntmen, they understand the perils, but they also understand the need to stretch their bounds, they visualize spectacular awe inspiring stunts and try and execute them by trying to get it right and make it look perfect on camera, which means like the stunt men, they most often have the luxury of retakes or multiple attempts.
Stunt riggers - A stunt director's team also always comprises of technicians who are skilled at rigging, whether it's pyros or rope and pulley systems, they are not performers; so does that make them capable of a project like VW? Partially yes, as you have to keep in mind, their approach to rigging is from the stunt's perspective, where falls and minor accident are part of the game also; they again, think in terms of multiple attempts.
Stage & Aerial riggers - These are people who build stages with flying or hanging elements, their understanding of trussing, its load-bearing capacity, rope & pulley systems, calculating torque, installing winches & hoists is most often than not quite precise. Considering they rig stage shows which invariably are live, they are used to rehearsals and then executing the activity with precision at the time of the event. So does that make them capable of a project like VW? Again, partially yes, because they are used to functioning on stage, rigging on a building is slightly out of their purview, in-terms of using the right anchors, creating ones if need be; all of which can only be done by structural engineers.
Mountaineers/Adventure professionals - As the name suggests, they are skilled at scaling heights, using specialised and tested equipment, functioning in harsh environments and have a working knowledge of knots, rope & pulley rescue systems. Now, does that make them capable of a project like VW. No, they are not used to performing for an event or audience. In mountaineering, one may have to factor in lifting people or small loads; but there is never the skill of hoisting loads like cars. Also, although all adventure professionals know the value of anchors, ‘rigging' on a building is way beyond their scope of work. In terms of using the right anchors or creating ones if need be in the case of a building, can only be done by structural engineers.
So, then who is capable of a project like VW, ideally it should be a combination of stage riggers as they understand live events, stunt riggers because they have lifted cars, trucks before and a structural engineer who endorses their anchor points and calculates loads.
So in conclusion, it's of utmost importance to make a decision based on clear thinking after understanding all relevant parameters, as a guide you should use the formula of Risk = Probability x Consequences to help you make the right choice.