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Volunteer Lessons Learned: Hypothermia

From the August 2021 issue of the Angeles National Forest Volunteer Newsletter.

Lessons learned in the field while we volunteer are valuable lessons, yet they are much more valuable if we share them with other volunteers so that we may all learn from them.

For this series, we invite you to send to us stories about things you have encountered while working that were valuable lessons that everyone should consider so we may publish them here, whether they were safety problems, unusual encounters with the recreating public, or anything else that you have handled while volunteering that should be – and can be professionally– shared with other volunteers. Let us learn from your experiences.

Situational awareness for employees and for volunteers is a must when we are out among the recreating public, we should be aware of what’s taking place within our area of influence from the time we get in the car to drive to the work site until the time we are safely back at home, being aware of who and what is in our surroundings is a matter of safety that should encompass the entire volunteer day.

Many years ago, the Trailbuilders were working with Boy Scouts on Big Cienega in the Crystal Lake Recreation Area. It was Summer and our Job Hazard Analysis (JHA) that morning included hypothermia as something to watch for since the Project Activity Levels (PALs) noted gasoline powered tool restrictions after 1 PM due to high temperatures.

While hiking up to the section of the trail where we were to resume brush removal from the trail, I noticed that one of the Scouts was exhibiting likely signs of hypothermia. Often when we work with large groups of students, Girl Scouts, Boy Scouts, youth groups and others who do not normally work in the forest, the adults do not use tools to work the tread ourselves, our task is to ensure safety among the volunteers who joined for the day, we do not perform trail work and leave the work for the rest of the volunteers to do.

As you probably remember from your First Aid, possible indications for hypothermia are shivering despite the heat, possible confused speech, and some indications of drowsiness, among other indications, all of which the Scout expressed on the hike up the mountain.

Talking with the parent about the Scout’s complaints about being exhausted and not feeling well, the parent noted that, “he does this all the time” and the parent resisted suggestions that the Scout be parked in the nearest shade, get water on board to hydrate and cool him, and take the usual measures we are trained to do to counter hypothermia.

We continued the hike up to the work site and I continued to watch the Scouts and noted that the minor who had been exhibiting likely signs of hypothermia had stopped complaining. Further discussions with the parent yielded noncompliance with my suggestion to park the Scout and get him cooled off.

The Trailbuilders held a 30 second huddle away from the rest of the group who continued to hike up the mountain while we talked. I expressed the need to get the Scout parked and cooled off and noted that the parent was resisting.

One of the Trailbuilders who has been with our group for decades was wearing a Forest Service volunteer uniform, and after our brief discussion, he went to the parent and ordered him to park his son in the shade, get him to drink water, and work to cool him down, and we got immediate compliance. Some of us performed our day’s trail work where the Scout was parked while the rest of the group continued up Big Cienega and did trail work at the proposed work site.

The lessons learned here were at core four things:

(1) We can not always expect parents or minors to accept suggestions that we make about safety or even about stopping to rest, drink some fluids, or accept any suggestions that we might make. This is reasonable because parents know their kids best, yet it should be stressed that volunteers have the better experience working in extreme heat and extreme cold during bouts of unusual exercise which their kids may not be used to.

(2) Some times compliance is only achieved with an expression of authority. It may be that our volunteer wearing a uniform underscored the suggestion that there might be a medical problem and to listen.

(3) On situations where we work with the general recreating public, when there is any possibility or expectation of a hazardous encounter, we are expected to observe, retreat, and report and await professional responders, yet there are times when waiting is not an option and we must insist that someone do as we order. In this case we had noncompliance after asking the parent to park the Scout, it was only after several polite requests that we ordered the parent to park his son in the shade that we achieved compliance.

(4) Situational awareness on the way to the work site, at the work site, and going home from the work site is a must, not only do we monitor ourselves for thirst, heat exhaustion, and the need to rest but we should be aware of the people around us, of potential hazard trees in our area of influence, of what’s being discussed on the USFS radios each group should carry. The chainsaw and crosscut saw crews are trained to always know who is doing what, where people are standing, whether they are moving, what the trees around them are doing, yet it’s not just saw teams that must be constantly aware, every volunteer benefits from being aware of their surroundings.

In the next “Lessons Learned” we’ll take a look at the consequences of a loss of situational awareness for a volunteer who was followed by a forest visitor down the mountain to the volunteer’s residence to underscore the fact that the volunteer day starts and ends when the moment they leave for the day’s work until they are back safely at home.

Last updated: by Angeles National Forest Volunteer Newsletter