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Both sides of the Pennines

In the summer of 2017 Cleveland Team undertook a Peer Review, led by Tim Cain. In September 2017 I joined the Review Team when they visited Bolton MRT.

Away from the Team my work in Education as the leader of a ‘MAT’ (a Multi Academy Trust) and previously as a School Inspector means that I have seen numerous of reviews, assessments, validations and inspections take place. Some have been great, helping to drive change and some, to be frank, have been bullying and intimidating; setting back individuals and teams and destroying confidence.

My experience of Peer Review in Mountain Rescue was clearly very limited, but after speaking with Tim at an information sharing session at Bowland Penine Team Base (great lunch provided by the way, at a well organised and well-resourced facility) with Jill Stubbs, Cleveland Teams Secretary we both felt a Review would help our Team.

Hopefully in this article I’ll explain why the Review process as it is currently conducted is helpful, and other Teams and their respective members will be able to consider if it’s something they would want to encourage their Team to actively consider.

I think the Peer Review process as it is developing has four key elements, I’ll try and reflect these and include some of the lessons I have learned along the way.

  1. Safety and Trust

All of our respective Teams could not operate successfully without giving the highest priority to safety and to trust. This is reflected in the Peer Review process.

When Cleveland Team were reviewed Tim responded quickly to our questions, and met with us too help us understand how best we should structure our review. Equally when working as a reviewer Tim made clear his expectations and how we should engage with Team members. This helped to secure a sense of Trust and openness.

This did not mean avoiding difficult questions or offering only support and praise. A strength of the review is in the asking of unexpected questions; and then working with the team to help them understand their responses. It does mean being highly attuned to people’s readiness for a challenge and their emotional state in a given interaction.

To create safety and trust on your Peer Review you could consider:

  • Provide time to get to know each other.

This doesn’t require a great deal of time or deep, personal disclosures; I would advise taking some time throughout the weekend to eat pizza or cake. Bolton’s recipe for Lemon Drizzle cake is definitely best practice, and they have promised to share it with hthe MR community!

While the reviewers are not there to give advice we all love to share a story of the odd or unusual callout, incident or recollection on how things used to be.

  • Talk about how well the review is going, it’s never too late to refocus your energies.

The ability to discuss your thoughts on how well the process is developing is a critical feature in any group that aspires to share effective feedback, not only because feelings are at the heart of most difficult conversations, but also because questioning peoples accepted way of doing things inevitably generates difficult feelings. Ali, the TL at Bolton was exceptionally skilful at this; I learned a great deal from him.

  • Make it OK to say no.

The question set IS long and very thorough. I would advise seeking to work through all the questions if time permits. A strength of the process is, however, the ability to call ‘time!‘ on any one section, and to prioritise which elements you focus on. I would suggest this be part of your planning before the review. In Cleveland Team we have been reviewing our ‘tech rescue systems’, the Peer Review gave us chance to reflect on how well embedded that change was. We didn’t allow the Team to focus on other areas so deeply…after all it is the Teams review.

A foreseeable risk in many teams, where we all freely give our time up will be that people feel obligated to discuss every aspect of the review in painstaking detail. Teams are free to postpone such conversations; I would suggest the ongoing dialogue between both parties through the weekend should be used to scaffold these decisions.

  1. Balance

The question set is good, but it’s not a perfect tool for self-reflection. We often trust that answering the ‘official’ questions posed of us will give us all the answers, but that’s just half the story. The other half is observing the Team in action. If you want a successful review you can’t have one without the other, but time is an obstacle that could prevent us from showing all that we want to over the course of a weekend.

To establish balance:

  • Get out on the hill

After pizza and discussion on Friday Cleveland Team spent part of Saturday and Sunday on the hill with the review team. For us this worked better than a whole day of questions, your team may come to a different view.

  • Have a callout. 

This may be slightly harder to arrange, but both Cleveland and Bolton Teams had callouts during their review. It provides the reviewers with a great insight. John, Ken and Tim were in one of our response vehicles when the Cleveland callout came; we had held a prior discussion about how we would deploy in the event of a ‘shout’; as it was on this occasion our lucky casualty benefited from the attention of four MR Teams!

Stopping with Tim and Matt at an RTC for two hours after the review was less welcome; but again Bolton Team did an excellent job, also attending and offering skilled casualty care.

  1. Normalcy

Training events and callouts can create space for people to be open to new ideas, but there is a risk that the next day everyone goes back to the real world and the learning is lost.

In Cleveland Team we have learned that a more structured debrief can help us ensure consistency of response, whilst allowing for structured innovation. It has been very helpful seeing best practice shared in the MR Magazine.

We have had to work hard over the last two years to keep to our Standard Operating Procedures; after the Review Tim suggested we shared our prompt cards that we have recently developed. Taking on the idea of the guides our Swift Water Technicians hold we are expanding these across all aspects of our operations. We will share them in a future MR Magazine.

Our next step is to integrate the behaviours we want (a structured debrief, and regular review of our SOPs) into our team’s daily routines. This will normalise the behaviour. We don’t want to rely on only getting, and acting on feedback at unusual times (for example when we have a near miss or when something’s gone wrong).

To make the Peer Review normal:

  • Don’t be exclusive.

Open up the discussion; get other agencies involved. Make sure your support group are there as well. This isn’t a review for the benefit of the Committee; it should benefit your future casualties.

  • Work in public. 

Share the planning process and keep an open mind. Be precise about arrangements. Not everyone wants to be in a room for a day discussing your team’s responses so consider breaking the day up. Shift mountains to make sure there is a representative sample of the Team there throughout; mix up your newest members with the long established. The discussion is what makes the Peer Review a success or a flop; the right atmosphere allows everyone to learn together and renew their common purpose.

  • Keep some notes.

Our Base is now festooned with post it notes, and the odd flip chart; we will revisit these to help us plan our next steps. It is vital that someone captures all the discussion for your Team.

  1. Personal Accountability

As members of a Rescue Team, be it as a Medic, an SRT, Team Leader, Chair, Committee members or whatever if we want our Teams to improve we have to get engaged with the process. It’s everyone’s responsibility. Gari Finch led some great work in Cleveland in support of this ethos before the Review, and this paid dividends for us during the ‘difficult’ questions.

Cleveland Team have sought to build this engagement through changing how we record training. We have moved away from a simple ‘hours logged’ system. The Team have been working with Rob Adams, who is now a support member, on developing how well we understand the skills represented within our Tea. He has helped us build an ‘App’ that lets us not only record competency but also acknowledges that Team members should also have currency with any given skill. Team members record, after receiving an email alert to prompt them to access the ‘App’ activities they have been involved in at training, or on a callout. Team Members interface with the ‘App’ through a very simple toggle system; a typical event can be logged in two clicks and three or four swipes. Simple!

As Team Leader it means I am more confident that we have an improving understanding of Team member’s current skill and competency level. A good example would be knowing not just that driver training has been undertaken, but also how recently a team member has driven, and under what conditions; be it a training exercise or a Callout.

To develop personal accountability in the Review:

We can’t just sit back and wait for the Review, and then expect it to be insightful. Seek everyone’s involvement in preparing your answers for the questions set. Consider creating interest groups (transport, medics, whatever) if that’s what will work for you. Perhaps even better though is to add some ‘not interested at all’ individuals to those groups. If we want to really understand how secure we are operating as a Team then you will need to hear diverse opinions. Get those responses recorded on the question set and if you can, type them up; you want your Review Team to focus on the content not the legibility!

In my opinion this review process approaches ‘best practice’ in many ways; I would recommend you go for it, but take steps to ensure you get the most out of the process. And make sure you get the Review Team to the pub on Friday night before last orders…

Carl Faulkner, Team Leader Cleveland MRT

September 2017

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