Life Lessons
 

Tonight I took my family to Kings Island (an amusement park north of Cincinnati) since I just got back in town from a lot of travel.  My children are young (10-boy,8-boy,5-girl), so we spent all of our time on the rides for young children.  The last ride of the night was to be the “Boo Blasters” – a ride that can fit up to three people in a car with IR “guns” that you use to shoot skeletons and other somewhat scary creatures for points. (This ride was formally modeled after Scooby Doo, but when the park was sold to Cedar Fair, they rebranded it due to copyright issues as a mild haunted house, and is easily the favorite ride for my kids at the park.)

My wife had our daughter with her in one car, and I was with our two sons in the next car.  Roughly three quarters of the way through the ride, the cars stopped.  The ride soundtrack kept playing, and my boys were excited that we stopped right in front of a couple of targets.  After some time, there was a voice over the loudspeaker that mentioned that they were working on the ride, and asked us to remain in our cars.  The voice was very difficult to hear (the soundtrack was still playing), but I understood the gist of the message, and explained it to my sons. The car that my daughter and my wife were in was stopped right in front of some skeletons – unfortunately probably the scariest part of the ride.  They were also angled in such a way that we couldn’t physically see each other.

After several minutes (I don’t know how long we had been stopped at that time), my daughter started calling to me to ask if someone was coming to “rescue” us.  Shortly after that, the same message was played again over the loudspeaker (NOTE: I found out later that it wasn’t a recording, but someone reading a pre-written message). At that time I looked at my watch for the first time – it was 9:10 pm (we had already been there for some time, but I can’t definitively say how long we had already been there).

At that time, they (finally) turned off the music, and again read the same message over the loudspeaker.  It was still dark, and my daughter was calling me more frequently now, asking when we were going to be rescued. At the same time, my 8 year old was starting to get spooked by the situation as well. Also, there were a lot of other riders starting to get wound up.  One lady was calling out that her son is autistic, and that she was trying to call 911 “because we were being held hostage” (unfortunately, due to the building, cell signals weren’t responding), and several people climbed out of their cars to leave the ride.

At this time, the lights came on – which didn’t necessarily help, since my daughter now had full view of the skeletons immediately in front of her.  My wife told me later that she was physically shivering she was so scared. At this time, I looked at my watch, it was 9:38 pm.

Shortly after the lights came up, there were staff walking the line to make sure everyone else was still in their cars and that those who had climbed out were safely out of the building.  One stopped by the car that I was in with my two sons, but only told us to stay in our cars, and that they were working on the issue – no time estimate given, or any explanation as to what was going on.  At this time, my son also had to use the bathroom – they had all drank some pop before getting on the ride (for those reading this with kids, you know what pop does to the young ones).

About 10 minutes later, the ride started up again, and we were able to leave the ride.  Was anybody hurt?  Fortunately, no.  Was there a horrible experience for a significant number of guests? Yes. Most of them  children, and by the time we actually got off the ride, the park was closing, so parents didn’t have any way to end the day with a positive experience.

So where was the failure in their planning? There were a few, but the biggest had to do with communication and apparently a lack of planning.

Lack of Communications Accelerates Angst in People Trapped

As most of you know who know me (or read my bio), I work part time for a local fire department as a firefighter paramedic and also volunteer for the National Ski Patrol (NSP) at a local ski resort.  My NSP training is very appropriate for analysis of this event at Kings Island – it is not dissimilar to a ski lift breaking down and having to be evacuated.  When that happens, there are a whole lot of steps that get put into action all at once, and I’ll cover a few of them here.

Two Way Communications Done Right

When a lift stops working at the ski area, one of the first things that we will do is send someone up and down the line letting people know that we are working on a resolution.  The Patroller responsible for this will either work their way down from the top of the hill on skis, or work their way up from the bottom on a snow mobile, and usually we will do both to cover more ground.

At every chair, the patroller will tell the customers what is going on, what we are doing to fix it, and if there is anything he/she can do to help at that very moment. This isn’t just a blast from the loudspeaker pushing out a standard message.  This is true interaction with those individuals who are stranded in a bad situation.  It gives an opportunity for staff to find out if there are extenuating circumstances that should be taken into consideration, such as a medical condition that should be addressed before the other chairs, someone close to panicking and climbing out of the chair (from 200’ that would be extremely bad), etc.  It also provides a calming mechanism, since the customers know that they are being heard, if not necessarily helped at that moment in time.

Opportunities for Improvement

I had a lengthy conversation with the Kings Island staff after finally getting off the ride.  There was a significant number of people that climbed out of the ride cars and walked out – in fact, I was getting close to doing this as well, and I would consider myself one of the more level headed people that were probably on that ride, having experience with Fire/EMS and the Ski Patrol.

It turns out that they have video access to the ride, but not audio.  So, while they can see what is going on for some percentage of the interior of the ride, and they can broadcast messages, there is no way for them to hear what is going on with the trapped customers. In all my years working fire-rescue and ski patrol, experience has taught me that people will panic much quicker if they are just being addressed by one way communication as opposed to getting their concerns heard.  It’s why we are taught from day one in candidate school to always keep a dialogue going with our patients/victims. 

If Kings Island would install microphones along with the cameras, they could directly respond to those fears and concerns instead of just broadcasting a pre-written message that didn’t give any consolation at all. In lieu of that, when people started panicking, they should have sent people in to the cars to find out if customers were ok.  They did send people in, but they were telling everyone to stay in their cars.  Neither of the two who came by ever asked if we were ok.  They were just telling us to stay in our seats.  So again, the staff was still broadcasting a pre-recorded message, just doing it in person this time around.

Lesson To Be Learned

  • Communication is a two way street. It involves listening as well as speaking, and I would argue that listening is the most important part.  Hear what the other party is saying, digest it, then respond accordingly.  This allows both parties to be heard and understood.
  • Don’t hide bad news.  Like debt, the penalty grows over time.  Share bad news early (even if it’s just potential bad news), followed by the plan for resolution.  In this case, they should have said something like “We are working on fixing the ride. please stay in your cars.  If we would need you to evacuate the ride, please wait for a trained attendant to assist you.” or something similar.  A statement like that says:
    • We see that there is a problem with the ride
    • We are working to fix it
    • If we can’t, we have a plan in place to get you out.
  • Continue reporting progress (or lack of progress) to keep people informed.  This is one of the tenants of Agile Software Development – transparency.  Communicate more often than you think you should – it still won’t be enough.   

Prepare For The Worst, Hope For The Best

When we get the slightest inkling that we might have to evacuate a chair lift, we start a lot of different tasks in motion.  In addition to the patrollers and staff that are working the communication with the stranded customers, we are moving a lot of other pieces into place.  We have a lot of gear that has to be moved to the top of the hills, we are staging patrollers and other trained staff into locations that will enable a deep level of coordination, and we activate the phone chain to notify local off duty patrollers that we might have a chair evacuation to conduct, essentially placing them into a stand-by mode.

More often than not, the lift gets fixed before we have to activate and actually do a chair evacuation, but it’s important to be prepared at the first sign of a problem.

I can’t speak for what the Kings Island staff was doing behind the scenes in regards to this event, since I was stuck on the ride. However, one of the staff did tell me that the people working the ride were not training in the lock out procedure, and it wasn’t until someone trained in that showed up that they could lock out the ride.  This seems to be a failure in planning.  The ride supervisor (at least) should be trained in this, so that when eventualities occur, they have the knowledge and experience to make the correct call and take the correct actions.  Leaving those decisions in that hands of people who are only training to measure a rider’s height and point them to an open car is woefully inadequate in terms of preparing.

Lesson To Be Learned

  • Be prepared.  It’s not just the Boy Scout motto, it’s how you should live your life and support your job.  When things start to go poorly is NOT the time to start scrambling to figure out what to do.  Every year, as part of our renewal training for the ski patrol, we conduct a chair evacuation in a controlled environment.  The more experienced patrollers help the new patrollers in actually doing the tasks to take people out of a stalled chair. But every single patroller has a hand in bringing at least one person down from the chair, practicing everything from communication to knots to actually working the active ropes.
  • Put more actions in motion than you need at that given time.  It makes escalation very quick and coordinated.  In fire-rescue, the second or third alarm is dropped long before you actually have a man-power shortage.  In Ski Patrol, we get all of the equipment staged before it’s needed, taking transport time and the physical hills into account.  In IT, that means getting the correct people on a call or in a meeting before your project fails to discuss how to take the right corrective action.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice.  It’s not just how you get to Carnegie Hall.  How many of you have actually practiced your disaster recovery plan?  How many of you have practiced rolling back a failed release?  How many of you have practiced a fire drill with your family?

Know What The Customer is Feeling

Every year when we do the practice chair evacuation, we put half of the patrol in the chair lift, then lock it out when they are in the air. These are the people that we are “rescuing”.  This does several things for us:

  • We know they won’t panic, as they completely understand the process. 
  • They can guide the other patrollers based on what they are experiencing to make the process better
  • They learn what it feels like to be stranded in a chair lift.

When you are sitting in a stopped ski lift, waiting on the ground crew to get the lines in place, you suddenly understand (at some level) what a customer is going through.  Now add in sub-freezing temperatures, wind, snow, and a lack of knowledge of the process, and you have a recipe for disaster if you aren’t constantly communicating with them. In our case, take a lot of children, place them in a dark tunnel with skeletons and other scary creatures, a really loud soundtrack, and a complete lack of information or communication, and you have a lot of panic ensuing.  One lady that my wife talked to after the ride said that her family had worked all day to convince their one child to ride that particular ride, and he finally agreed.  This is how they got to end their day after spending a significant amount of money in the park.  They indicated to my wife that they would not be back.  And that’s a shame, since it really is a nice park.  We’ve been Gold Pass members for several years, and the kids really enjoy it – in fact, this is the first bad experience that we’ve had with them.

Lesson To Be Learned

  • While you are practicing your plan, use your staff as the guinea pigs.  Several times I was told by the staff that this particular ride is different than the rest, and present real challenges.  I wonder if they have ever practiced with drill with park staff sitting in the cars while the cars were stopped, the soundtrack blaring, and then make an announcement over the loudspeaker.  How well can it be heard?  How well does the message resonate with those that are actually trapped in the cars?
  • One of the things that we do on the Ski Patrol is have a dedicated person taking everyone’s name and contact information as they are lowered from the lift.  There are many reasons to do this, but the one that I want to call out is the ability to receive feedback on the experience.  Talk to everyone as they leave the ride, get their name and number (or email), get a statement from them at the immediate time after the experience.  Then follow up with a contact that again apologizes for the inconvenience, but also asks for information on what they experienced, and how they could do better next time.  It’s called a retrospective.  If you only analyze the event from your perspective, you will only look at things like timing of the lock out, response time to the scene, or how effective backing out the release was.
  • I wrote a blog post a while back about an experience that I had with my oldest son (you can read it here). It reminded me that my perspective isn’t the only one out there.  Neither is yours.

Summary

I spent a lot of time talking to the Kings Island staff after the event.  I wasn’t upset that the ride broke down.  These things happen.  What upset me was how it was handled from a customer’s perspective.  They might have done everything “by the book” as far as they are training.  And, as far as I know, no one got hurt.  But also (as far as I know), I am the only person that had any exchange with the staff, and that was initiated by me.

  • Talk with your customers, not just at them.
  • Practice, Practice, Practice
  • Understand how they feel.

Again, I want to emphasize that as far as I know, no one got hurt, and they our safety was never in jeopardy.  that is indeed the primary concern.  But we weren’t hanging upside down on a roller coaster, and we had a lot of young children on the ride.  There is more to being successful at what you do than counting the number of bandages that needed to be applied.  In software we often joke “If it compiles, ship it”.  Just because something doesn’t break doesn’t mean you are meeting your customer’s needs, let alone their expectations.

At Telerik where I work in my full time job (I am a part time Firefighter/Paramedic for the fire department, and I volunteer for the Ski Patrol), we have a company slogan “Deliver More Than Expected”.  I expect that my family and I won’t get hurt when we go on a rider.  That doesn’t keep me coming back to the amusement park.

Although my blog is typically technical in nature, I believe the examples and lessons learned from this experience are cross cutting all facets of work and life.

Happy Coding.


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