CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 2 MARK SMEDLEY
Headquarters and Headquarters Company,
39th Infantry Brigade Combat Team
Camp Joseph T. Robinson
North Little Rock, Arkansas
What if? If we apply this short question to many of our day-to-day activities and assess the “what if’s” rather than disregarding them, we are performing an abbreviated version of risk management? By asking and addressing this question, we are identifying and assessing the risks and hazards to empower us to make decisions and implement controls, which can help minimize or eliminate accidents. If we never address the what if’s in our lives, an accident or tragedy could be in the making.
The following is a true story about two young men who embarked on a duck hunting trip together. Had they used the what-if principle and assessed the many potential hazards, they would have most likely postponed the trip and lived to hunt another day. The specific accounts mentioned here are summarized from a newspaper article where the local game warden described the scenario of how the two men were doomed from the moment they entered the lake.
The early morning hunt began in late December during a freezing rainstorm with steady northeast wind speeds up to 50 mph. The two men entered the lake around midnight in a 10-foot aluminum boat without a motor and only one kayak paddle to steer. The boat was loaded with about four dozen duck decoys, shotguns, ammo, a 50-quart Yeti cooler half filled with food and drinks, and a large Labrador retriever. In addition, each man weighed about 175 pounds. The warden estimated the boat was most likely rated for approximately 400 pounds maximum and as a result of the excess weight, probably had only about three inches of freeboard from taking on water.
Due to recent heavy rains, the lake was wider and the water level much higher than usual. The hunters entered the lake on the east bank, so the high winds caused the boat to push to the west, leaving no hope of paddling back to the departure point. One of the men had previously hunted near an island on the west arm of the lake. This was their intended hunting destination; however, once getting there, they discovered the island was 8 feet underwater. It was there, due to strong winds and turbulent waters, the boat was either swamped or capsized.
One of the men, upon entering the water, managed to shed his neoprene waders, possibly thinking he could swim more freely without them. He never made it out of the water, and his waders were eventually located 500 yards up the bank from where his body was found. The second man was able to swim or ride the Yeti cooler to shore, but due to his waterlogged clothing and the harsh, freezing temperatures, he was unable to survive on land. Even if he had the resources to start a fire, it would have been impossible to light due to the weather conditions. Cellphones belonging to both men were smashed and water-soaked, preventing them from summoning help.
The last known contact with the men was via Twitter shortly before midnight. They tweeted they were driving to the lake through a bad storm. It was estimated their boat capsized about 2 a.m. and that both had died before sunrise. The inclement weather remained for several days afterward, so rescue workers did not locate the hunters’ bodies until eight days after the incident. The Labrador survived the event and was found near one of the men’s bodies.
One might ask what, if anything, could these two men have done to prevent this tragic accident? Due to their young age, possibly they felt as though they were invincible and nothing bad could happen to them. What if both men had worn personal flotation devices? Could the man who drowned survived? What if they wore dry suits that allowed them to survive in the cold water? What if they had their cellphones and other gear in a waterproof bag for use in a survival situation? What if they had prepared a float plan, describing to family members exactly where they were intending to hunt and, therefore, assisting rescue workers in coming to their aid more quickly. If they had taken some of these steps, could they have summoned help and survived through the night until rescue workers arrived?
Better yet, what if before they had even begun the hunting trip they had identified the numerous hazards and assessed the risks? Would using the steps of risk management have allowed them to realize the dangerous conditions in which they were subjecting themselves? If so, they may never have put their boat in the water that cold winter night and instead returned home safely to their families to live and hunt another day.