As COVID-19 cases develop across the country, we are continuing to monitor the evolving public health situation and to update our risk management plans accordingly. Our students and their safety remain our top priority, and we are committed to working with them, their families, and their academic advisors through this unprecedented situation.
To limit the potential of transmission of COVID-19 among our employees and those visiting our office, our staff are working remotely. During this time, we will retain our normal business hours of Monday through Friday 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. (MST). We’ll be checking voice mail messages regularly and we can be reached by email at [email protected]
Due to continued COVID-19 concerns, WRFI recently made the very difficult decision to suspend all of our summer courses. This was disappointing, to say the least. In the end, we decided that it would be irresponsible of us to run these courses, given continued restrictions around uncertain health risks. Following are some of the primary factors that led us to this decision:
• A continued mandatory 14-day quarantine issued by the Governor of Montana for any individuals entering the state of Montana.
• A lack of available testing for COVID-19.
• The need to reduce visitation to many of the rural (and vulnerable) communities we visit during our courses.
• Continued closures of many public lands facilities that we typically use during our courses.
• Logistical issues with risk management should a mandatory evacuation (followed by mandatory quarantine) be necessary in the case of illness occurring during a course.
We are hopeful yet that public health will improve and current restrictions will ease over the coming months, and that we will be able to run our fall courses as scheduled. At this point, we are still accepting applications for both Montana Afoot and Afloat: Human/Land Relations and Colorado Plateau: Desert Canyons & Cultures.
In preparation for the fall 2020 courses and all 2021 courses, we strongly encourage students to purchase travel insurance prior to their course, which may cover a broad variety of expenses, including illness, injury, family emergency, etc. One option is World Nomads, which has provided travel insurance for many WRFI course participants over the years. However, World Nomads is just one of many available options, and we encourage students to talk to an insurance agent to assess their insurance needs. Be sure to read the details to understand what claims the policy will cover in response to COVID-19.
In accordance with WRFI’s withdrawal and cancellation policy, if a course is postponed or canceled, WRFI will either offer enrollment on another course, or provide a refund of all tuition paid. WRFI is not responsible for non-refundable airline or other travel tickets, or any other associated travel costs. It is for this reason that at this time, we are asking students who have not already made travel arrangements to/from their course start location to hold off on purchasing any airfare, lodging, etc. until our fall 2020 course plans become more solidified.
The health and safety of our students is WRFI’s first priority. We take a holistic view of our student’s well-being that includes not only their physical welfare, but their psychological and emotional health as well. WRFI maintains a comprehensive risk management plan that is regularly updated and reviewed in order to stay current with industry protocol.
While risk in inherent in the types of activities WRFI students engage in, we aim to minimize risk and keep our students healthy through prevention, extensive planning and preparations, and adherence to strict protocols. Each course has a tailored set of guidelines and procedures specific to the place and potential risks that could arise.
The WRFI staff is happy to answer questions about safety and risk management as well as share our policies, procedures and risk management plan. Please don’t hesitate to contact the WRFI office with inquiries.
Traveling for an extended amount of time in a backcountry setting can be a life-changing experience. While generally quite safe, wildlands travel does come with inherent risks and there is potential for dangerous situations to arise. Injuries and accidents can happen. The remoteness of our course locations often dictates that most medical problems that arise- scrapes, sprains, or illness- will be mitigated in the field. If serious injury or illness occurs in a backcountry setting, WRFI instructors and staff will coordinate an evacuation with local emergency medical responders. WRFI utilizes a variety of technologies to ensure that groups in a backcountry setting can contact emergency medical services or the WRFI office if need be, including satellite phones and texting devices as well as cell phones.
Learning to identify and avoid potential risks and stay healthy in a field setting is one of the most valuable skills that students can take home with them after a WRFI course. We expect students to take responsibility for their own safety and contribute positively to a culture of safety among their group. Students who jeopardize the safety of the group or any participant will be sent home immediately, at their own expense.
WRFI has an emergency response protocol in place whenever students are in the field. If an emergency occurs in the backcountry, instructors proceed with the emergency response protocol specific to their location, which is established prior to the course embarking into the backcountry. WRFI staff and Board of Directors are notified and assist as needed.
WRFI reserves a position on our Board of Directors for a physician to serve as a medical advisor for the organization. This individual reviews all of WRFI’s policies and procedures, assists with instructor trainings, and serves as a resource for questions that arise from student medical screenings. If an incident comes up in the field, the medical advisor is typically consulted on the best course of action.
In addition to WRFI’s Medical Advisor, several members of WRFI’s Board of Directors serve on a Safety Committee which is responsible for evaluating WRFI’s policies and procedures annually, reviewing any incidents that occur in the field, and making recommendations that keep the organization up to speed with industry protocol pertaining to risk management.
WRFI instructors are required to hold a current Wilderness First Responder certification to teach in the field. Instructors also have access to risk management trainings organized annually by WRFI’s staff and Board of Directors.
Part of the reason WRFI maintains a low student to instructor ratio (6:1) is to help us effectively manage risk in a backcountry setting and ensure our students receive the attention and personalized care they need.
All WRFI students receive a comprehensive orientation at the beginning of their course outlining policies and recommendations for staying healthy while in the field. Everyone’s body responds differently to the rigors of backcountry travel and our orientation will help students anticipate and respond to potential issues that may arise.
In order to participate on a WRFI course, students are required to make an appointment with a medical professional for an in-person health screening and physical. WRFI will provide accepted students with a medical form that they will have filled out by their health care provider. Prior to the beginning of each course, WRFI staff and instructors conduct a medical review of the group’s medical forms to note and record information pertinent to their participation on a field course.
In addition to physical health, WRFI is committed to supporting our student’s mental health. We request students consult with their medical care providers about mental health issues and communicate those concerns openly with WRFI before and during their course. It is critically important that WRFI is aware of potential issues in order to support students in the field.
WRFI provides vegetarian dinners to students while they are on their course. We plan our meals to provide adequate and balanced nutrition. WRFI can typically accommodate a wide variety of dietary allergies, restrictions, and preferences. Please contact the WRFI office with specific questions about dietary needs.
WRFI has a comprehensive emergency response system in place whenever our students are on a course. You can contact the organization at any time. WRFI’s instructors, staff, and Board of Directors are all trained and equipped to handle emergencies as they arise.