A Storm Brewing in DoC Intentions

There’s an interesting storm brewing in Canterbury over DoC’s decision to phase out paper-based intentions forms in favour of instructing people to use the AdventureSmart website instead, which either helps people to create their own intentions forms with their own trusted contacts, or (after many clicks) appears to eventually direct people to the RoughPlan website as the only “approved provider” for recording intentions via a website. Kingsley Timpson, of DoC’s Waimakariri area office, stated (to The Press) that it isn’t DoC’s role to manage people’s intentions, and DoC’s head office has stated the new web system is “safer and easier to use”. [Edit 7th May 2012: Radio New Zealand’s Nine To Noon hosted a panel this morning to discuss this change.]

Graeme Kates, the now-former chair of Arthurs Pass Search and Rescue, has just resigned his chairing position, and also his front-desk DoC visitors’ centre position, in protest over the change, claiming that the decision will cost people’s lives. Mr Kates is well known in SaR circles, running a comprehensive website for Arthurs Pass Mountaineering on which he continually documents accidents and rescues, and which I’ve cited from here on several occasions. He’s documented his concerns on his site in more detail.

One of his biggest concerns is that high numbers of visitors to the area are international tourists, whom he’s noted often have trouble with the intentions system and providing sufficient and accurate information. The web system doesn’t reliably check data that’s been entered inaccurately, and it doesn’t assess plans that might have safety issues, both of which occur when people leave paper intentions forms with DoC staff.

I’ve rarely had interaction with the DoC intention system. It’s not implemented anywhere near as strongly in the lower North Island where I’ve spent most of my time, and in these places which are less touristy, there’s already a higher expectation that people will be more responsible for themselves and their intentions. As far as I’m aware, the Department of Conservation doesn’t have any clearly dictated responsibility to be responsible for people’s intentions and tell them what to do in the outdoors. Many people would find it patronising if it did, but I can appreciate the concerns in places that attract large flocks of international visitors of little experience combined with overwhelming enthusiasm. If there’s nothing to reliably moderate what such people try to do and encourage them to have clear contact with those who can assess and provide advice on their plans, it’s probably reasonable to expect that there will be more bad decisions, more accidents, more SaR call-outs which could well have to work on less reliable information, and most likely more deaths in the outdoors.

Rather than involve DoC or its Visitor Centre staff in the process at all, the Adventure Smart Website guides people into providing useful intentions to their own trusted contact person. This might be by providing structure for an email (which will then be sent to a person they nominate), providing a structured form that can be printed, filled in and handed to a “trusted person”, or directing them to the RoughPlan website. The website then allows the person to enter information and configure alarms that will be triggered for their “trusted contact” (in the form of emails and text messages) if they haven’t checked in by a certain date. All of this appears to rely on the person themselves deciding whom to trust, and to finally get things right.

I haven’t seen DoC’s side of this argument and it may also be a strong one, but I think I can appreciate the concerns that many people who might otherwise leave intentions through a paper system in a DoC office as they leave simply wouldn’t bother doing any of these. Just as likely is that they might try to create intentions (particularly through using the website) but not properly complete the process.

For instance, it’s reasonably easy for an unfamiliar person to create a record of a “trip” on the RoughPlan website, but leave the trip in a state where a trusted person won’t be contacted, or forget to fill in critical parts of the intentions, or enter an emergency contact’s email address incorrectly (which might go unnoticed by the automated system), or perhaps not realise that the maximum 5 text message alerts per year have already been used up. In fact, it’s completely possible to create a record of a trip with full intentions recorded, but to accidentally leave that record in a state where nobody else can see it or become informed of it at all. I’m absolutely happy to be corrected on these assertions. I’ve not yet used the RoughPlan website myself except for idle playing around.

The RoughPlan website has been in development for some time and it looks to be a brilliant tool for collaboration in planning outdoor activities, and for leaving intentions for those able to become familiar with how it works. That said, I’m not sure how much in parallel it compares with the existing DoC paper-based intention system. This is especially the case when considering people who might be travelling alone, who may have limited English language skills, and who may have limited internet access—one of Graeme Kates’ points is that there’s no free internet access at Arthurs’ Pass.

Despite good intentions on the part of DoC who are pushing for the change in intentions’ systems, it seems as if this change may have been pushed through on short notice without much interaction or sufficient consultation with DoC staff on the ground who presently administer the paper intentions system for visitors. As of today, 30th November 2011, DoC has temporarily retracted the removal of the paper-based intentions system in Arthur’s Pass National Park. Hopefully it’ll allow more time to assess the issues and address them appropriately.

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