How fast can you execute your response to an injury? This is a question that many race promoters do not like to talk about.


Because they don’t know the answer to it.

Think back to the last race you were in.

Now think about that part of the course that you went, “Whoa, that was close”.

You didn’t fall or wreck, but if you had, it would have been very bad.

Now think about that moment in the race from another angle — the race director’s point-of-view.

If you had been the race director, how would you have been informed that a “not so whoa” moment has occurred?

Would your course marshals have been notified about the incident?

Most racers are kind enough to pass along the message that someone is hurt on the trail to the first volunteers they see.

Others — especially those that take helping a fallen racer more seriously than any race — will actually stop and literally be your “first responders”.

Trained or not, racers will get to your injured person long before your course marshal does.

But once the course marshal is aware of the incident, and does arrive on the scene, what then?


Mobile phones?

Smoke signals?

How does your course marshal inform you that you need to start your emergency response plan?

My what?

Your emergency response plan!

The plan that every sanctioning association requires you to have before they give you a permit.

You know, that thing most race promoters claim to have for the sake of “checking the box” on the permit application, but don’t really have any details.

Let’s face it, calling 9-1-1 is not an emergency response plan.

That is a detail WITHIN your emergency response plan.

Ok, back to our thought exercise.

Now try to imagine that someone is seriously hurt on the trail, and the race director is finally notified about the problem.

How long does it take that person to notify Fire and Rescue, or Emergency Medical Technicians (EMT), that they are needed?

How long will they take for them to arrive from wherever they are?

10-minutes? 30-minutes? 90-minutes?

Then how long will it take them to get to the injured person on the trail?

Another 10-minutes? 30-minutes? 90-minutes?

When you add up all the time between the first report of the injury, your notification to authorities, EMT arrival, and then EMT transition to the injured person, a ton of time has passed.

If the injury is serious, that amount of time could mean the difference between life and death.

The Golden Hour

I want to bring you back to the question that started this article:

How fast can you execute your response to an injury?

The only way you have a chance to answer that question with any certainty, is to first think through HOW you would respond to an incident BEFORE you actually need to.

In order to do this, you have to first war-game your worst case scenarios, then think about all the ways you could get immediate care to an injured racer.

This is the basic thought process that goes into your initial Emergency Response Plan:

Getting the right care to the right location in the right time.

This may sound very intense.

That’s because it is.

Emergency response should taken seriously.


Because it will eventually happen to one of your racers during one of your races.

It is not a matter of IF, but a matter of WHEN.

Injuries are not something you want to take lightly. Same goes for planning how you will deal with those injuries when they happen.

You make everything worse by not preparing for this event.

Take note that professional first responders are always minutes away when seconds matter.

That means those that get their first — you and your team — could be the only emergency response that reaches a racer in time.

In time for what?

In time to make the difference between life and death.

Are you prepared for that day?

How can I possibly prepare for that?

Easy. Build an Emergency Response Plan that actually works!

A Plan In Four Parts

Every Emergency Response Plan (ERP) has four (4) distinct parts to it:

  • #1 — Be Prepared
  • #2 — Be Vigilant
  • #3 — Be Communicating
  • #4 — Be Sure

If you work through each of the four parts in order, your ERP will be prepared, effective, and useful when you actually need it.

Here are how you should approach each of the four parts:

#1 — Be Prepared

You should think about how you can have medical skills on sight ork nearby.

There are real injuries that require an emergency response, and then there are those other injures — trips, falls, and face-plants.

Although, trips, falls, and face-plants are painful, most are superficial and non-life threatening.

Some racers are wimps and cry wolf when they get a little scrape.

Others will walk off the course with broken bones and never say a word to you.

You will never know the difference between who it crying wolf and who is really hurt.


So you must react to every injury as if it is the real thing until you know the difference.

How do you do this?

First, get educated. As a race promoter (and most likely the race director) you should have a decent amount of medical training yourself.

Do you need to be a doctor?

No! But you should certainly be — at a minimum — First-Aid trained, CPR certified, and (if possible) Wilderness Medicine trained.

Where can you get this training?

The Red Cross provides first-aid and CPR certifications monthly. Sometimes you can get this for low cost of even free through your local Volunteer Fire Department.

Wilderness First Responder training is more advanced. The National Outdoor Leadership School (NOLS) provides nation-wide course on Wilderness First Response education.

Additionally, companies like Backcountry Lifeline (BCLL) are trying to change the way emergency response education is conducted by providing racers with medical training.

The point is, there is no excuse for not getting trained.

This goes for your staff too. You set the emergency response training standard for everyone who works for your company.

The second thing to do is have designated first-aid people at all your races, and make sure everyone know who and where they are.

This could be volunteer Fire Department EMT’s, a staff member with First-Aid and CPR training, or a volunteer doctor, nurse, or athletic trainer.

Whoever they are, point them out, identify their purpose, and make it very obvious what they are there for.

Next, you, and everyone else working your race, should know who to call and how far away help is to your venue.

Miles and minutes (minus prep time and traffic) will become important when you need to make decisions about the severity of an injury.

You may need to make a terrible choice to move someone off the trail to save their life.

If you know that emergency response is still miles away before they can provide assistance, it will be up to you to make those very tough decisions.

The more training, support, and assistance you have on-site, the less pressure you will have on you when it comes to deciding how to respond.

Finally, make your racers know that you care about their safety, by identifying a location near registration that will provide help.

Some call it the med tent, with plenty of racers with minor owees and boo-boos showing up for care.

Don’t admonish them for they’re minor cuts and scraps. And do not say dismissive things like, “That’s mountain biking”, or “that’s trail running”, or “that’s adventure racing”.

Those attitudes and statements do not support your Disney approach to customer service.

Besides, being attentive and responsive to minor injuries is great training.

Take advantage of the opportunity to practice your skills while making your racers feel better in the process.

#2 — Be Vigilant

You should be thinking about where to place course marshals so that they can cover known danger areas, vantage points, and cross-roads.

Course marshals are your rule keepers, your sentinels, and your actual first responders.

Pick them carefully, making sure they are prepared to assume the first responder role within your emergency response plan.

Don’t pick people that will not take this role seriously, will not pay attention, or will not stay where you put them.

Additionlly, course marshals should be armed with three (3) items:

  • A clear course map
  • A way to communicate
  • A way to stop bleeding

The first item — a clear course map — allows course marshals to communicate using the correct names of locations.

This map is critical in guiding professional emergency response to injured racers.

You should always share these maps early, so that all course marshals understand what each area is called (especially if they have never been there before), and where it is in real life.

If everyone is calling parts of the trail different names, your response teams will quickly become lost on the way to delivering vital care.

But if the trails you are working with do not have names, then give them names!

Name everything! Including your parking area, registration area, and even your finish line.

Make it simple, so that you don’t complicate your efforts.

However, if the trail is called “Billy Goats Gruff” and the locals call it the “Blue Loop”, you are only going to delay emergency reponse to the right location if you call it Billy Goats Gruff.

Your course map should also show high-speed access routes, cut-offs, and central locations that vehicles can get to (or ATV’s as needed).

Be thinking like a first responder when you make your map, not a racer.

Course marshals might need to do the coordinating for you, and have to be the one to guide responders to the injured racer.

You have to give them all the information they will need BEFORE they need it.

The second item — a way to communicate — is essential to any response efforts (covered in more detail in the next section).

You must make sure that any communications gear you do use is fully charged and includes extra batteries.

Electronic gear without power is useless.

The final item all course marshals should have is a way to stop bleeding.

It would be great if all course marshals where first-aid trained, but that might be a tough thing to arrange.

However, they could be equip with enough first-aid materials to keep bleeding at bay — one of the most common injuries in off-road racing — while coordinating an emergency response.

Otherwise, they’re going to end up using their shirt, jacket, or whatever they can get their hands on to stop any serious bleeding.

Don’t make them have to get creative in order to buy your emergency response some time.

Make it easy for them to provide assistance by making sure they leave for their course marshal location with the basic items needed to save a life.

Gauze is cheap. Life is not.

#3 — Be Communicating

You should be thinking about having network or system for communicating across distances, around terrain, and beyond obstacles.

Chances are, your course marshals are going to be the first to become aware of an incident.

They need a direct way to call for help, notify the race director, and get the emergency response initiated.

Make sure they are prepared to respond beyond just sounding the alarm.

Mobile phones are good for areas that have decent mobile services. When they don’t work, walkie-talkies can become essential over long distances.

Unfortunately, the very nature of off-road racing’s is to use big terrain in course designs.

While this makes for a great race, it will disrupt communications, block signals, and prevent calls for help.

This is why you need to conduct live experiments with your communication of choice.

You need to know what works, and what is going to get blocked.

You might need to put volunteers in key locations to relay messages to and from the race director.

But you won’t know that if you don’t go out to the venue and find out for yourself BEFORE the race.

Discovering your walkie-talkies don’t work on race day is a recipe for disaster.

Work out your communications plan prior to the race, not during, and test it to make sure it works.

#4 — Be Sure

You should be thinking about how you can conduct finish line headcounts and course sweeps to account for everyone in your race.

Timing can be a very passive way of keeping a full count of who is still on the course, and who is not.

It could be your first indication that someone is missing.

Because timing is not always perfect, and racers that DNF (do not finish) often dip out without telling anyone they have left the course, you need to physically check the course with sweepers.

Sweepers are those volunteers that slowly roll up the course behind the last racers, pulling up arrows, tape, and signs.

They are also a great way to notify other volunteers that the race is over, and find any racers that may have left the course, fallen off the trail, or been overlooked by everyone else.

Sweepers are incredibly important in determining who is left on the course, above and beyond what timing can tell you.

If you only use timing to clear your course, you won’t discover that someone is missing for a long time after the last racer crosses the finish line.

And that’s if the timers are right.

This means an injured racer could go unnoticed for hours, and it could be dark before a search party is organized enough to start looking for them.

Sweepers help reduce the risk by being the eyes and ears of the race director.

Plus they assist in making sure the slowest racers make it back safely.

Do not ignore the value of sweepers in pairs or groups either. If you have the numbers, two is always better than one when it comes to emergency response.

Always in your Back-Pocket

Always build an Emergency Response Plan that you will hopefully never have to use.

However, if you do have to use it, your plan could mean the difference between rescuing a racer, or recoving a body.

Take this part of your planning very seriously and put some effort into getting it right.

It’s okay if you never use it.

But the time you spend doing this kind of planning will always worth it if it ends up saving a life.

Now you know.

Posted by Kyle Bondo

Kyle started Reckoneer with the simple mission of helping those who want to become race directors and learn the mechanics of outdoor recreation engineering. Kyle demystifies outdoor racing with over 20 years of endurance and outdoor industry business knowledge. Combined with his top-rated podcast Merchants of Dirt, dozens of articles, lessons, and infographics, Kyle has made Reckoneer the premier educator in outdoor event management. Build better races today!