If you were a facilitator in the 70’s and early 80’s, The Electric Fence would have been part of your working vocabulary; a fabricated, mildly threatening initiative problem from your journeyman bag of tricks. For many years now The Electric Fence initiative has become THE egregious example of an unsafe adventure programming activity, mentioned in the same pejorative context as riding a bike without a helmet, or canoeing without a PFD. Makes you wonder how we managed to make it through each day before safety standards made our lives, well . . .safe.
So why did results from Project Adventure’s touted national safety survey questionnaire indicate that The Electric Fence initiative problem resulted in more lost time accidents than any other initiative or low ropes event?* Because, as presented at that time, it was inherently a high risk, borders-on-dangerous, activity for most groups, and particularly co-ed groups. But why . . .? Obviously the original presentation had flaws and needed to be changed. Let’s take a closer look at the problems and what needed changing.
For veteran facilitators, the following performance objective and rules might represent a nostalgic trip down workshop lane. The remainder of you can try to imagine being a participant, digesting the presentation patter and trying to figure out a solution. Don’t be ivory-tower-critical (remember, these rules are being quoted from a 27-year-old book), just come up with a solution. Quickly, you’re being timed.
From the original black cover text (1974) entitled simply, Project Adventure. “Object: To transport a group over an ‘electrified’ wire or fence using only the participants themselves and a conductive beam.”
Three simple rules -
1. The wire (originally a retired section of Goldline rope) is tied
between two trees, parallel to and five feet above ground.
2. If a person or the supplied beam touches the rope, that person and anyone touching him are zapped and must reposition to the starting side for another attempt.
3. The area extending below the rope represents a force field that may not be penetrated (by breaking the plane) by anyone or with the beam; consequences result as above in rule number 2.
That was about it, other than indicating that an 8’ stout beam was the only prop allowed, followed by a few safety comments about removing sticks and rocks from the participation area.
A five foot high “fence”?!
• How many in a group can “clear” a five-foot
fence? Not many.
• How many think they can? At least 2-3 of the more hubristic males.
• How many will try? At least one, usually the loudest.
• Is jumping over the rope allowed? It used to be
• Can a jump be spotted? Yes.
• What will the spotting provide? The opportunity for jumper and spotter to share injury.
• Is jumping over the rope a risky thing to try? Big time risky!
• Is diving over the rope allowed? See bullets 4-7 above, and substitute the word diving for jumping, and multiply the consequences by 3. A 4” X 4” X 8’ s stout beam allowed as a prop?
• If someone climbs up the well-supported 8’ angled beam and attempts a jump over the rope, how many feet will the jumper have to drop? Over 5 feet.
• Will this jumper receive any effective spotting? Theoretically - some; practically - not much.
• If the beam is held between two people can someone step up on the beam and jump over the fence? Yes, if his/her foot doesn’t catch on the rope.
• How far will that jumper have to drop? About 6 feet.
• Will this person receive any spotting? See bullet #2, this section.
• If two people, holding the beam horizontally, provide upward momentum with their arms and legs, will this help the jumper clear the fence? Yes, by at least a foot, and with light jumpers considerably more.
What changes in the Electric Fence can be implemented to maintain the challenge factor and reduce risk?
First change: Lower the “fence” to about 3 feet, and even lower for younger groups.
Second change: Require that all participants maintain physical contact with one another for the duration of the solution, obviating excessive “throw” techniques.
Change the name of the activity to . . . something else. (Ask the group to name the activity.)
Following changes 1 & 2 above provides a considerably safer substitute for The Electric Fence initiative problem while approximating the original challenge.
* Just in case you need to know, the number one causative participatory factor for accidents in an adventure/experiential-oriented program was, still is, and probably always will be … GAMES! Not The Pamper Pole, or Zip Lines, or low-cabled events, but ordinary, run-around-get-shoved-fall-down-bump-into-things GAMES.
Karl Rohnke will be presenting a full-day workshop at the T.E.A.M.
conference February 10th, 2006. Space is limited, so we suggest you register