What’s up with the Mountain Safety Council?

From this morning’s news, it sounds as if the Mountain Safety Council is going more professional, doing away with amateur instructors and, for the most part, even training people at all.

I’ve never been a direct member of the Mountain Safety Council, but I’ve attended some courses and read training material that’s published alongside those courses like the Bushcraft Manual, the Outdoor First Aid Manual, and the Alpine Skills Manual. I’ve also attended courses run through my local tramping club with MSC-accredited instructors and MSC course material.

From my limited exposure I’ve been impressed with how the system works. Once you get into the Mountain Safety Council beyond the lowest levels, it doesn’t just aim to teach you stuff. It encourages you to get involved in a progressive programme towards becoming an expert in the field, remaining updated with the latest research and techniques, and ultimately becoming an instructor who can train others at an expert level.

It’s sad to read, therefore, that there’s apparently now a plan to flatten this structure: no longer allowing volunteers to have training accreditation, and at best using amateurs as vassals to help out with relatively simplistic tasks like “deliver safety messages” instead of being a serious part of the process. Waikato Branch executive member, John Greenwood, seems to have a good point in the above-linked article that volunteers would have little reason to stay involved with the Mountain Safety Council. After all, what’s in it for them?

Any entity can give directives or advice to others about what they should do, but the structure of the MSC until now has been one which directly involves amateur outdoor users in the process. It provides opportunities not just to learn from an instructor, but to contribute back to the process and become an accredited instructor as part of that building of expertise in the field.

This doesn’t just result in effective training at low cost for those who need it, it also creates highly qualified safety ambassadors in outdoor communities. Whether it’s through official courses or simply going into the outdoors with others they know, people learn good safety stuff from friends and others they trust, who happen to be trained experts because that’s what the Mountain Safety Council creates. It’s a level of credibility in the outdoor community which would be very difficult to obtain through an organisation that isolates professional trainers from those being trained.

The Mountain Safety Council grew out of Federated Mountain Clubs in the 1960s, and retained a close relationship for several decades. Much of its historic material and advice over the years has evolved from the experience and research of amateurs who spend vast amounts of time in the outdoors, and return to contribute, discuss and debate their knowledge with each other and with professionals.

In the November 2014 FMC Bulletin (#198), FMC President Robin McNeill, and most recent editor of “Safety in the Mountains” (reviewed by me here), wrote the following:

“The Mountain Safety Council has struggled to accommodate the funding cuts they have experienced in recent years and accordingly they are about to embark on a major refocus and restructure. For some years now, FMC has stood back from MSC’s operations and governance, even though we are on their council. We had come to feel that MSC had a predetermined future in which we were superfluous; we felt that we had little to offer them, either by way of governance or through practical participation. Indeed, the governance structure of MSC did not encourage us to commit the energy required to usefully influence MSC’s direction. Nonetheless we are well aware that some of our members are MSC volunteers and that a number of MSC branches are associate members of FMC.

“The challenge we have been working on since MSC has undertaken their review is to answer these questions: (1) How indispensable is MSC? (2) If it is indispensable, how should FMC take a stronger role to ensure its success? (3) If MSC cannot efficiently serve a useful role, then should it be disbanded?

“These stark questions have kept me awake at night for some time and it is occupying the thoughts of others on the FMC executive also. It is no small matter: MSC was established by FMC in the early 1960s and the MSC technical advisory groups then largely comprised FMC executive and representatives, through until the mid-1970s. Since the mid-1980s, professional guides have gradually come to dominate outdoor instruction, and outdoor safety matters have migrated to the domain of industrial legislation as adventure tourism has flourished — and with it, a culture of accountability and blame. Since the turn of the century, the internet has changed the way people learn: we should ponder the need for training manuals and outdoor recreation courses for amateurs when YouTube has become the de facto DIY teaching resource.”

At the time of reading this, I’d simplistically assumed it was more a fallout from the recent arguments between FMC and the MSC about appropriate researching and training of river safety techniquies. Now it seems that differences may go beyond that.

There certainly are outdoor safety issues which aren’t being effectively addressed at present, if it’s even possible to do so. The Mountain Safety Council’s history, where it evolved from domestic tramping, alpine and hunting groups, and sometimes individuals, does not necessarily, for example, place it well to address issues with the high number of tourists who now visit New Zealand for short times, get into the outdoors and often have little interaction with those domestic groups.

That aside, it does seem as if the Mountain Safety Council is now shifting towards simplifying itself into an organisation that could be mistaken for any here-now-gone-tommorrow professional government commission: Sitting at the top to analyse problems, creating material to advise of what it deems best practices, pumping out press releases, and (most critically) using volunteers to do what it says rather than become a part of the process. This may still be beneficial for some groups, but it’s effectively turning a blind eye to the amateur outdoor enthusiasts with whom it originally worked very effectively. If this is the case then it may be necessary for amateur users of the outdoors to consider creating a new system or entity to focus on the style of training and outdoor education which the Mountain Safety Council no longer intends to be deeply involved in.

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