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Planning for safety
The rules
Entry form
Tags
Telephone contact number
Who started the event?
Check points
Transport
Drop outs
Closing a check point
Communications
Lost or merely overdue
Searches
Example search
Sweepers
Written emergency procedures

Planning for safety

Events with many participants require adequate planning and resources.  Here are some suggestions which should be considered if planning an event such as a large moors walk, cycle ride or horse ride.

Safety is the main consideration.  The event should be organised with safety in mind and have written procedures to be consulted in case things go wrong.  All organisers and assistants should know what to do in a variety of circumstances.  There should be sufficient manpower and transport immediately available to cope with expected situations.

Some people may enter the event to be severely competitive and others may be happy just to take part and hope to get to the end.

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The rules

Competitors need to know what is expected of them.  They need to know where to go, how they should complete the event, what to do and what not to do.  They may need to carry essential equipment. This could include map, compass, whistle, torch and waterproof clothing.

Youngsters are often forbidden to take part unless accompanied by an adult.

If part of the event is in darkness or visibility deteriorates badly, it is common to insist that competitors travel in groups and stay in groups.  This may inhibit the competitive factor, but greatly increases the safety factor.  Check point staff may hold a few people at the check point until enough others have arrived to form a group of perhaps six or ten.  The serial numbers of people in each group are noted and the group is allowed to continue.  The accepted method is to progress at the pace of the slowest in the group as that is the only sensible way of keeping together.  Once groups have been formed, any lone individuals who appear at a following check point indicates to check point staff that somebody hasn't been following the safety rules.

Rules usually state that a competitor who feels that he can't continue on the event must drop out at an official check point, so that event organisers know about it and transport can be arranged.  If a relative provides transport or the competitor otherwise obtains his own transport, organisers must be informed.  This can be done by visiting a check point or by using the emergency telephone number.  Dropping out of an event without informing organisers will mean many hours being wasted by the event organisers, police and search teams.

The rules can be printed on an entry form.  Any changes or late additions to the rules can be displayed at the event HQ or assembly point.

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Entry form

Each competitor should complete an entry form containing details which event organisers need to know.  If somebody goes missing, searchers will need to know if they are looking for a 60 year old male or a 20 year old female.  If somebody drops out of the event without telling any organiser they are going home, their home address needs to be known.

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Tags

Each competitor who starts the event should be handed a tag.  This is essentially a serial number which is associated with that person's details such as name and home address.  The tag may be of various designs.  It may be an engraved metal disc, a laminated card or be capable of being glued to clothing.

It may have the check points listed on it and is intended to be clipped at each check point, but the essential thing is that it has a unique serial number which can't be mistakenly read upside down.

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Telephone contact number

All competitors should have a written telephone number which they can use to contact the event organisers while the event is in progress.  It can also be used by other organisers and assistants.

If the event is based in a village which has good cell phone coverage, that telephone number could be an organiser's cell phone, if it is certain that the cell phone will never be taken out of range.  If there is poor cell phone coverage, a resident in the village may be willing to stay at home for the duration of the event and ask a relative to walk to the event HQ with messages.

Alternatively, an assistant organiser may be manning a check point all day, which is in good cell phone coverage.  When necessary, another assistant there can drive to the event HQ to deliver a message.

The main purpose of an emergency telephone number is for competitors who have got lost to give their location to an event organiser.  This saves much time and manpower in searching for missing people.  It also allows the organiser to arrange transport to collect the lost competitor.

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Who started the event?

Entry forms may have been completed weeks before the date of the event.  Some people may not attend.  Others may be allowed to enter on the day of the event.  A registration system must be in place so that organisers know exactly who started the event.

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Check points

Check points can be planned at intervals on the designated route.  They are best placed on public roads, to provide easy access to a car, minibus or ambulance.  There should be adequate space for the safe parking of check point staff cars, plus other vehicles which may need to visit the check point.

Large events may use buildings for some check points.  These could be village halls, hired for the day.

If the event is to be co-ordinated using cell phones or radio transceivers, it is best if check points are at high points with distant horizons.  Radios usually don't work well in valleys.

Drinking water is often supplied at check points.  It saves the competitors having to carry enough for the entire event.

Competitors are usually checked in, meaning that their serial numbers and times of arrival are written down.  It is best if the checker notes the serial number from the competitor's tag and doesn't believe what the person says is their number.  The tag will definitely have the correct number.  The competitor may or may not give the correct number.  Unless the tag is seen, an event may have two 63s at each check point but number 64 has been missing since the start!

There is usually no reason to check out a competitor.  It is extra work.  Competitors are assumed to either continue immediately or to have a few minutes rest.

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Transport

Check point staff normally provide their own vehicles to get to a check point.  Extra vehicles may be needed:-

To transport dropped out competitors from a check point back to HQ.
To transport heavy equipment to a check point and return it when the check point closes down e.g. water barrels, signs, tents, cooking equipment, kettles.
To transport sweepers or searchers.  They can't use their own cars as they will be abandoning them to walk, so they would still eventually need transport back to their cars.
To operate a shuttle service if the event HQ is a long distance from a parking area.  Parking may be very limited in a small village with narrow roads.  A farmer may be willing to provide space for the parking of competitor's cars a mile from the village.

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Drop outs

It is expected that people won't enter an event unless it is likely that they can complete it.  Even with expert walkers, runners or riders, there are situations where competitors have to drop out of the event.  The causes are usually weather, fatigue and injuries.

Sufficient manpower and vehicles must be made available to cope with the number of people who drop out.  The problem is in estimating what this number will be.  If all competitors are experienced, there will probably be fewer drop outs than if they are inexperienced.  If the weather is extremely hot, wet or cold, there may be many drop outs.

There is often a problem if the weather changes unexpectedly.  If it becomes very hot, wet or cold, the number of drop outs could be enormous.  Plans must be in place to cope with the prospect of 50 or 100 people dropped out at many check points over a large area.  This has happened in the past and will happen in the future.  A single minibus will take forever to drive all over the area to collect so many people.  The medical condition of drop outs can deteriorate, the longer they are away from comfort and shelter.

Ideally, enough minibuses will be made available on the event, with the backup of extra manpower and arrangements to obtain extra minibuses at an instant's notice if it becomes necessary.  This can only occur if appropriate plans are in place.  Events are often on Sundays and Bank Holidays, when many minibus hire companies are closed.

It is a wise person who drops out of an event.  Some may see it as a failure.  It isn't.  It is better to drop out due to fatigue than to continue and twist an ankle, making walking impossible.

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Closing a check point

A method of closing each check point needs to be established.  It could close down when the last competitor has gone through.  How is it known how many competitors should be expected?  What if a competitor suffers an injury half a mile past the checkpoint, hobbles back there and finds everybody gone?

Another method is to keep each check point manned until all competitors arrive at the following check point.  This keeps check point staff fixed and unavailable for other work.  It also requires a method of communication at all locations.  What if somebody does not arrive at the next check point?

Another method is to wait 45 minutes after the last competitor left and then close down.

Another method once everybody has passed through, is to go to reduced manning.  Most people and vehicles leave and return to HQ in case needed elsewhere.  At least one vehicle remains in case a competitor turns back.

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Communications

Ideally, there will be a method whereby all check points, vehicles, roving staff and HQ staff can talk to each other.  This allows the following routine functions:-

General co-ordination.
Confirmation that locations are fully manned.
People and vehicles can be diverted to where they are needed.
Check points can be updated on who to expect.  This could be done via a non-starters list and a late entry list.
Details of drop outs can be sent to HQ so that transport can be arranged and prioritised if the drop out needs urgent attention.
All check points after the drop out location can be warned not to expect that competitor.
Specialist manpower and vehicles can be located and summoned e.g. first aider, doctor, vet, blacksmith, horsebox, bags wagon, body wagon.
HQ can be given a general picture of the progress of the event by being sent details of the arrival times of the first and last competitors, plus a head count at regular intervals.

The basic communications method involves the HQ building or area to have a telephone.  Each checkpoint either has a cell phone which is known to work at that location, or knows the location of a nearby working public telephone.

The latter requires extra vehicles and staff, so that the check point remains manned while somebody drives to a telephone.  Although it means that the check point has a method of contacting HQ, unless regular journeys are made, HQ has no means of contacting the check point.

If communications are a mixture of normal telephones, cell phones and licence-free PMR446 radios, it is very important in the planning stage to check which locations can contact which other locations using the short range PMR446 radios.  It may help to change check point locations which will be using PMR446s so that they are at high points.

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Lost or merely overdue

Deciding whether a competitor is lost or merely overdue can be difficult.  It is usually decided on a time basis.  Having good communications helps.  Previous progress can be checked by obtaining the competitor's start time and arrival time at each check point.  If they were usually at the back, then they are probably overdue.  If they were usually at the front and fifty others have arrived who were usually behind the competitor, they may be lost.

A fairly common occurrence is for a competitor to miss a check point due to poor navigation or visibility and to turn up safe and well at the next check point.

One thing to bear in mind is that given enough time, all missing people usually eventually appear at a check point or telephone the emergency contact number.  The police and established search teams know this from experience and so are likely to show minimum interest in somebody who is missing for only a short amount of time.

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Searches

To help prevent searchers getting lost or into difficulties, searches should only be carried out by people who are suitably qualified.  This is usually a matter of fitness, experience, navigation ability, clothing and equipment.

It is best to plan for such people to be available at the event and to have no other duties, or to have duties which can be dropped instantly when necessary.

One method is to supplement these standby searchers with others, as HQ tasks at the start close down or check points close down.  As people can go missing or get into difficulties at any time, sufficient searchers must be available from the start and especially at the very end, when competitors will be tired and may make mistakes.

There have been a number of occasions when most event organisers were sent home as it was close to the end of the event and only a few competitors were due to finish.  When one of the few remaining competitors didn't appear at the finish, there were insufficient organisers available to mount a car search using observers or a walking search.  The event isn't finished until all people are accounted for, and helpers who volunteer to attend the event shouldn't go home until the very end.

Every searcher must obviously know exactly who they are looking for.  They need to know the name, age and if it isn't obvious from the name, whether male or female.  They can shout the person's name as they search.  A description of clothing is very useful but normally not available, as clothing is often changed whilst on an event.

Cars travel a lot quicker on good roads than walkers, cyclists or horses.  Cars can be sent to strategic points where footpaths cross roads, to act as observers.  If binoculars are available, they will help.

A lost person may reach a public road and for ease of walking and navigation, may then choose to keep to roads instead of more direct footpaths.  A car could be allocated to drive up and down specified roads.

Searching in the dark is difficult.  If a search is under consideration, it is probably best to get it started and well underway before darkness descends.

How many people are needed for a search?  The answer is usually that there are never enough people available for a proper search, so the more, the better.  If each search team has about six people to search between two points, they can split up and take three different routes.  If they each carry PMR446 licence-free radios, they can probably keep in radio contact with each other and perhaps with the start and end point of the search.

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Example search

To give an idea of the resources necessary for a simple search, consider the following.

A walker left CP6 (check point 6) at 10:00 hrs.  CP7 is 4 miles from CP6.  CP8 is 4 miles from CP7.  An experienced walker should have a minimum average speed, including rests, of 2 mph.  He should therefore have arrived at CP7 at or before 12:00 hrs.  He didn't.

If he missed CP7 as he was on a path 100 yards from it and continued walking, he should have reached CP8 at or before 14:00 hrs.  He didn't.

At 16:00 hrs, the organiser starts a planned search.  It has been 6 hours since the missing walker was last seen.  At 4 mph he could have walked 24 miles.  At 2 mph he could have walked 12 miles.  There aren't enough vehicles and people to search a radius of 24 miles from CP6.  A decision is made to search alternative paths between CP6 and CP7, also from CP8 to CP7.

CP6, CP7 and CP8 already have one car and one person.  Search team A has six people.  A minibus takes search team A to CP6.  Three small cars with drivers are available to take team B plus their rucksacks to CP8.  They won't fit into two cars.  If some of the team drove their own cars, they would end up 4 miles away and would eventually need other transport back to CP8 to collect their cars.

The minibus searches the roads and drives from CP6 to CP7.  The three cars search the roads and drive to CP7.

The search teams split up into pairs so that they can search more ground.  As there are two people in each sub-team, if the missing competitor is found injured, one can stay with the casualty and if necessary, the other can walk to a check point or to a place with radio or cell phone coverage to report and obtain assistance.

This simple search example required twelve capable walkers, a minibus with a driver and three small cars, each with a driver.  A total of 16 people.

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Sweepers

Some events provide sweepers, which are teams of perhaps four people who walk behind the competitors for safety cover.  It isn't completely obvious if sweepers serve a useful purpose.

Sweepers follow the designated route between check points.  If a competitor lies injured on the route and is unable to walk, the sweepers will see him.  However, unless he was the very last person on the event, other competitors would have found him before the sweepers.

If a competitor turns onto a wrong footpath, or fails to turn at the correct footpath, he is off the route.  If he lies injured, the sweepers won't be on that wrong route and so won't see him.

If sweepers walk most of the route and then have to start searching for a missing competitor, they are not fresh and may well be quite tired before they even start a search.

There is a good argument for not using sweepers.  Instead, they can be standby searchers in case they are needed.

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Written emergency procedures

It isn't always easy to compile exact instructions to follow for every safety problem which may occur on an event.  Manning resources may be different for each event and may change as the event progresses.  Written procedures can still serve as guidelines and reminders.  They should be available to all organisers and helpers on the event.

Injuries and missing people are the obvious problems which may occur on an event.

Are St John Ambulance or Red Cross personnel on the event?  Will they be based at HQ and expect others to transport minor casualties to HQ?  Will they be willing to use their own cars to travel to a check point to deal with a casualty?  Have they been asked to provide an ambulance?  If an injury is serious, do communications exist at all locations so that a first aid ambulance or a county emergency ambulance can be called?  On the North York Moors, an emergency ambulance driving at top speeds with sirens and blue lights may still take 30 minutes to get to some locations.  In foggy conditions it will take longer.

At what point is a competitor labelled as missing?  How long after he was last seen?  Which qualified people are instantly available for a search?  Which others can be withdrawn from other tasks?  What transport is instantly available?  What communications are available to co-ordinate the search and to end the search when the lost person is found?

At what point do you report a missing competitor to the police?

If the event suffers a wipe-out due to the weather, how will you get 100 people back to civilisation in a reasonable time?  What backup transport has been planned for such an occurrence?  Who needs to be contacted to unlock buildings?  Where do the drivers come from?  Are simple waterproof shelters available to keep people out of the rain or snow until transport arrives?  Where are they?  How can they be obtained?  Who will transport them?  Are sufficient communications in place to co-ordinate the situation?

If somebody is missing and can't be found after a search, do you telephone their home address and ask if the lost person has simply gone home without telling anybody?  If you do that and the missing person is not at home, you may cause relatives to worry.  There again, perhaps they have a right to know?

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Cleveland Mountain Rescue Team

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Page updated on 09 January 2017

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