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A Storm Brewing in DoC Intentions

There’s an interesting storm brewing in Canterbury [1] over DoC’s decision to phase out paper-based intentions forms in favour of instructing people to use the AdventureSmart website [2] 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 [3] 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 [4].]

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 [5] 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 [6].

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.

18 Comments (Open | Close)

18 Comments To "A Storm Brewing in DoC Intentions"

#1 Comment By Graeme Kates On 2 December, 2011 @ 11:08 am

Thanks Mike, very well balanced article showing a good grasp of my (and many others) concerns.

#2 Comment By Mike McGavin On 2 December, 2011 @ 11:16 am

Thanks, Graeme. Glad I caught the gist of it—I wrote this in a bit of a rush.

#3 Comment By Margaret Cottle On 2 December, 2011 @ 10:10 pm

I wholly agree with the concerns expressed by Mike and Graeme. Having been in the situation for several years of holding contact information for people heading to Temple Basin Ski Area I know that on one occasion just a Post Office mail Box number had been given as the contact for that person. Quite often too, I had to dissuade overseas travellers from rushing off direct from the airport to the mountains after a long haul flight as they did not know the weather situation nor forecast or had completely mis-read the weather situations or did not know of potential hazards. My comment to them always was that they would hardly want Search and Rescue to be called out at midnight for them. Texting in the Arthur’s Pass area may not always be relied on either as I have received on occasion personal texts, sent to me from elsewhere in Canterbury, which arrived on my mobile phone in Arthur’s Pass many hours after the person sending it had arrived in person by vehicle. The intentions card system should, in my opinion be retained primcipally for the safety issues raised by Graeme – and Mike.

#4 Comment By Mike McGavin On 4 December, 2011 @ 12:31 pm

Thanks Margaret.

I guess I can see why DoC wants to get out of the business of acting as people’s trusted contact, which seems to be what’s happening here if I understand Graeme correctly. This is how it works in nearly all the rest of the country, after all: DoC will provide intention books in huts and often at road-ends of various sorts, but people are responsible for themselves when it comes to finding a trusted person who will actually look out for them, record the detailed intentions, and raise an alarm if they don’t return.

It does seem, though, that DoC has decided to pull the plug very suddenly on the trusted-contact thing, at least at Arthur’s Pass, without nominating any adequate replacement system that will actually cater to the mass of dis-organised international tourists to that area who don’t speak reliable English, and who don’t have convenient reliable contact people they can trust with this kind of information for them.

In my opinion, at least, these sorts of visitors often need someone local with expertise to be there for them as a trusted contact, irrespective of everything that’s bleated about how people need to be responsible for themselves and sort themselves out, because that simply won’t happen given the types of people who come visiting. If it’s not DoC which does this, there needs to be an alternative service provider they can use instead.

#5 Comment By MapGuySteve On 15 December, 2011 @ 1:25 pm

What! Of course it is DOC’s role to manage visitor intentions, especially at gateway visitor centres such as Arthurs Pass, Mount Cook and St Arnaud.
Having tramped extensively in both islands, the difference is the single point of entry to many South Island mountain areas. A road end intentions book is only useful if somebody actually goes to check it.
The one time I needed it, boy did that intentions system at Te Anau DOC worked well, based on local knowledge the police flew straight to where we were. The cops first words were “Are you our customers?” His second words were “We knew you’d be camped up here”.
Foreign and local travellers do use the intentions cards, they work extremely well.
I fail to see how somebody half a world away can play an active role in looking out for trampers and climbers . Ask yourself this question: how often have you gone into the hills leaving no intentions at all?

#6 Comment By Mike McGavin On 15 December, 2011 @ 1:58 pm

Hi Steve.

“A road end intentions book is only useful if somebody actually goes to check it.”

That’d be why, at least for the last 6 months, [13], reportedly claiming at the user-group meeting that SAR isn’t their area.

#7 Comment By Mike McGavin On 15 December, 2011 @ 2:45 pm

To recap, I don’t think it’s unreasonable to expect people (especially locals and those who’ve lived here and grown up with the culture and perpetual news about risks in the outdoors) to arrange their own trusted contact people, and I don’t think DoC should necessarily have to provide that. Part of the awesomeness of New Zealand’s back-country is the ability to simply be independent, and to be able to roam around in a place where DoC is legislatively closer to being a caretaker for public property than a warden or gatekeeper as happens in various other countries.

I just happen to also think that tourists are an exception. If New Zealand is to be marketed as a big tourist destination of which “going tramping” is often a major a part of the visit, it has to be anticipated that there will be many short term visitors of low experience and incorrect expectations, an often unpredictably youthful mentality and approach, and presumptions that getting outdoors in New Zealand will be a similar safe and government-managed activity to many of the other countries they might have visited on the way here. With such a tourist drive, it’s reasonable for them to expect that every bluff they could reach is fenced off and every route shown on a map is well tracked and signposted, and cellphones will always work, and where the weather is predictable and tame. It’s irresponsible to presume that simply telling tourists to take care of for themselves, or giving them a list of things to do and watch for, will reliably result in it actually happening.

If DoC is no longer interested in catching foreign tourists in the key places where they frequent, to at the very least create a record of where they’re going and when to worry if they don’t return, then perhaps someone else needs to start doing it.

#8 Comment By MapGuySteve On 15 December, 2011 @ 3:31 pm

Trouble is Mike, there is nobody else………..
Just a slowly strangled DOC

#9 Comment By Mike McGavin On 15 December, 2011 @ 4:08 pm

True. It’s really a hole in the legislation. DoC doesn’t have a legal mandate to look after tourists in such a way, at least as far as I’m aware. It’s just something that’s always been done in some places but not others until now. There may be other directives scattered around such as in local management plans, but the Conservation Act itself only ambiguously says that [14].

Nobody else has this responsibility, either, but maybe it needs to be clearly mandated either for DoC to do it, or for one of the tourism bodies to take over. Writing to the Minister is probably a good starting point.

#10 Comment By Amelia On 5 January, 2012 @ 9:50 am

I’ve not used the paper system myself, but I can certainly see its value. I think a lot of people, if they got to the DoC office and were told to do it online just wouldnt bother. Especially with the cost of data for smartphones / tablets or the frustration of having to go down the road somewhere to find internet before you can get started.
Anything that makes SAR’s job easier is a good thing, right?

#11 Comment By Amelia On 5 January, 2012 @ 9:58 am

Another interesting point raised by Graeme on the site: It removes the need for trampers to come BACK through the DoC office – So someone who might have come back in today, and told DoC that a slip had come across the track might just sign out online (and of course, they have to have web access to do so, I assume? and remember to do it? Does the website inform LandSAR when someone has not signed out?), and therefore DoC might not know for another week that there is an issue on that track, because no-one might come and tell them that. Instead, people will just moan about DoC not telling them there were issues, and not fixing them!

#12 Comment By Mike McGavin On 6 January, 2012 @ 12:31 pm

Hi Amelia. Yes that’s probably another side effect.

Nah, the website doesn’t inform LandSAR (or the Police for that matter). It doesn’t automatically inform anyone at all, unless the person using it has set things up correctly. (Probably that’d be a pain for the Police having to interpret and act on the 95% of alerts from people who just didn’t bother to switch them off when they got back.)

There are a couple of websites involved. The [2] (to which DoC’s referring people) doesn’t do anything whatsoever. It’s purely an informational website, so far only for English-speaking people, that tries to guide people into making their own arrangements, whether it’s by filling in a printed intention form and giving it to a trusted contact, or by filling in an email template and having it emailed to a trusted contact, or by going to another approved website (the only one on the list is [3]) which lets people enter their intentions, nominate a trusted contact, and provides some extra automated functionality for reminding that contact to act if something expires.

RoughPlan’s an awesome tool for people who already understand and appreciate the process and how trusted contacts work (pop over and take a look if you haven’t already—you could use it for organising trips), but it’s not a replacement for the expertise and experience that DoC staff would have added to the process of making sure intentions are actually recorded usefully. The website’s only as smart as the person using it. It doesn’t guarantee that someone’s chosen a reliable contact, or made sure their contact knows what to do and when to do it, or understands what it means when an English-language RoughPlan email pops into their inbox at 11.30pm somewhere in Paris, or even that their contact knows they’ve been nominated. RoughPlan doesn’t notify anyone on a panic date unless someone actually tells it to, so the person using it needs to clearly understand that they have to do more than just go there, fill in some details about where they’re going, and hit save. Personally, I’d also rather not want to rely on such a tool alone to send an email on a panic date—really you need a contact who’ll be pro-active and realise themselves that something’s wrong whether they get an alert or not.

If there were web access (which I understand is being worked on), maybe DoC staff could still help people to fill in the forms and make sure the information’s useful, but what can they do if someone turns up without having any reliable trusted person they can nominate? That’s maybe the situation where it’d be good to have another service (maybe a business?) ready to go, that’ll accept intentions and take a nominal fee in exchange for panicing and notifying emergency personnel in an intelligent way when people don’t report in, but as far as I know it doesn’t exist.

I think making own arrangements is fine, and it works everywhere else in NZ (except where it doesn’t, obviously), and maybe DoC has a good point that it confuses people when some visitor centre’s take intentions whereas others don’t, but I guess the biggest problem here is that it’s being pushed through in a way with no adequate replacement, and all those one-time-tramping tourists will just keep doing what they’re doing and be less safe in doing it.

#13 Comment By Mike McGavin On 7 May, 2012 @ 7:03 pm

If you didn’t hear it, [4].

#14 Comment By Margaret On 7 May, 2012 @ 9:53 pm

Thanks for the e-mail. I did hear part of the programme. Comments about tourists often not being aware of local conditions reminded me of a young German woman who, several years ago, said to her NZ tramping partner, AFTER walking part of a well-trodden track (the Hawdon valley) marked on a map in the AP National Park, ” NOW I know why there are no bridges and why you have to get your feet wet.” Her reading of the map before the tramp had left her with the impression that the track was over fairly flat ground (a different contour interval), and her unfamiliarity in general with the type of terrain and the heavy rain storm experienced could have meant disaster. Her experienced NZ tramping partner knew the river crossings would not be safe until river levels dropped. This is the sort of information that DoC staff can provide, and can also gather , through the intentions card system. No ‘on-line’ system can replace this.

#15 Comment By Mike McGavin On 17 May, 2012 @ 11:05 am

Hi Margaret. Thanks for the thoughts. Following on the radio stream, [15]. This is concerning, imho:

“The terminal does allow you to get most of the way through the process, but you will not know if your ‘trusted’ contact has received the e-mail, or is willing to take on the responsibility,” Reid said. “Local DOC staff have been directing people to the terminal, as they have been requested to do, but I understand that so far few tourists have gone to it, and none have used it to leave intentions. Recording intentions in Arthur’s Pass appears to have largely collapsed and that is worrying for Arthur’s Pass search team members.”


The biggest concern for search and rescue personnel is that the online intentions system removes from DOC valuable information about who is in the park. “For any search one of the first things you do is go to the intention card file and pull out everyone in that area and then you have a huge resource of witnesses, which we now don’t have with the new system,” Kate said. “[DOC has] now removed all the track-head intention books in the park as well, so those paper trails have also gone. For SAR it’s really put us behind the eight ball.

#16 Comment By AlunJ On 10 May, 2012 @ 2:31 pm

You can’t stop idiots being idiots.

Roughplan works and works well – it even texted my sister when I forgot to “deactivate” it after a weekend tramp.

It is uncomplicated, intuitive and easy to navigate.

Well done DOC for advocating a genuinely useful website.

#17 Comment By Mike McGavin On 10 May, 2012 @ 4:44 pm

Hi AlunJ. Thanks for the comment, and yeah it’s true to an extent. I’m not convinced everyone’s automatically an idiot just because they do something silly or inadvisable. The concern I was trying to express though is that idiots or not, there’s a good chance that DoC’s sudden withdrawal from what it’s doing will result in more and longer SaR ops, and very possibly worse outcomes.

DoC doesn’t have a direct responsibility for safety, and personally I don’t think it should be doing this kind of stuff. DoC doesn’t do it anyway in most parts of the country that receive few tourists. The long term solution should be to make people be fully responsible for themselves. There’s nothing inherently wrong with the Mountain Safety Council’s AdventureSmart website if DoC wants to point at it, but it’s definitely not a drop-in replacement for what DoC was previously doing, and with just a few month’s notice there’s been very little opportunity for a robust transition process, or to investigate what else might actually be needed to help tourists, in particular, stay safe.

Roughplan’s an awesome site, albeit only one of several options that AdventureSmart suggests. DoC’s main involvement in this, though, is in withdrawing interactive services it used to provide. It’s only advocating the English only AdventureSmart website (which it otherwise has little to do with) because it’s the next best thing now available.

#18 Comment By Mike McGavin On 5 December, 2012 @ 6:40 pm

From what I said in January:

“That’s maybe the situation where it’d be good to have another service (maybe a business?) ready to go, that’ll accept intentions and take a nominal fee in exchange for panicing and notifying emergency personnel in an intelligent way when people don’t report in, but as far as I know it doesn’t exist.”

From [16], it’s great to see that someone’s apparently actually giving this a go!

Due to launch 6 December is Safety Outdoors, providing a simple and effective new service. As the only safety check service in New Zealand for outdoors activity the company is committed to ensuring each and every person who signs up with them is accounted for. It is a simple, convenient and reliable system involving a free phone call, text or online registration beforehand and confirmation of finishing afterwards. […] Safety Outdoors Director, Stuart Fraser says a major point of difference is that they are acting as the trusted outdoor contact for every booking. “If we don’t hear from you within the registered time frame operators based in New Zealand, working in real time, follow a checking process with every contact point provided. If necessary, we can then notify the appropriate authority.”