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Running ‘Mega’ Programs – Part 1

Author(s): Rick Curtis
Posted: September 16, 2007

I just got finished with running the fall wilderness orientation program at Princeton University. This was our largest program in our thirty-four year history with 644 freshmen, 165 leaders, 46 Support Team members and 12 Command Center staff. We ran 74 different trip groups of 10-12 per group in areas from the Shenandoah Mountains in Virginia to the Green Mountains in Vermont. This is one of the largest single wilderness orientation programs in North America. Now that I’ve decompressed some from the busy week and all the gear has been put away, I thought I’d share some of the techniques I’ve developed for running ‘mega’ programs like this one. Being a tech geek I’ve found that technology has been an essential tool for me to handle the vast amounts of data that one has to process when dealing with this many people, spread out over this large an area. You can also view Part 2 and Part 3.

Transportation & Support

Just to give you a sense of our program, we drop groups off along the trail by 55-passenger bus. For every bus there is also a Support Team, two students in a mini-van who stay in a local motel and are on call to provide non-emergency transportation for our groups. The Support Team concept came about years ago when we had some bad drought summers. In some of the trip locations there simply wasn’t water on some days so we had to bring water in to the groups. To accomplish this we examined each day of our routes and identified locations where the group intersected a road where we could do a water drop. Other years we haven’t needed to do the drops, but we keep them in nonetheless. We keep all of our Route Plans in a Microsoft Access Database. For each day there is a listing of any road crossings that looks like this.


1. 9:00 AM – AT jct. Skyline Drive at Jenkins Gap mile 12.5
2. 2:30 PM – AT jct. Skyline Drive at Hogback Overlook mile 16

The rendezvous marked in red and italics is a “required” water drop. That is our Support Team in the area will come at that time and wait for 45 minutes for the group to drop off water. It’s also a chance to resupply the group with needed items, bring the group snacks, or pick up someone that is having trouble. This informal interaction adds another fun part to the trip when the group shows up and the Support Team has goodies for them. It also means that the Support Teams have a good time which makes it much easier to recruit students to come back two weeks before schools starts to help out. Each Support Team travels with an Iridium Satellite phone (Globalstar is having some satellite problems and their signals are not as reliable as they used to be).

Command Center & Telecommunications

During the trip we have a Command Center set up in our Equipment Room. The University Telephone Office sets us up with a bank of telephones (6 multi-line sets) with a “hunting number.” That’s the central number that people call (@@@[email protected]@45). If that number is busy it automatically rolls over to the next line (@@@[email protected]@46) and so on. The Command Center is staffed by 8 people, six students and two administrators from 8:30 AM until 8:30 PM (or until we are done). At night I talk call from home. The Command Center is also equipped with wireless Internet and we have about 6 laptops on.

Groups in the field carry either standard cell phones or satellite phones depending on their location and the availability of basic cellular phone service. Groups keep their phones on from 12:00 – 1:00 PM and from 6:00 – 8:00 PM each day so that we can call in to them if there is any situation that develops. If groups need assistance they call in to the Command Center (unless it is a serious emergency in which case they call 911/local EMS first). We use a code system to identify the severity level of the problem.

  • Code Red = life-threatening medical emergency
  • Code Orange = medical emergency (non-life-threatening)
  • Code Yellow = minor medical problem
  • Code Green = minor logistical problem

As soon as a group calls in to the Command Center they say, “This is Trip BF27 we have a Code Yellow.” At that point, if communication were lost, we would know the group, something about the severity of the problem, and their approximate location based on their daily trip route. More than once this communication shorthand has come in handy when the cell or satellite connection was lost.


Like everyone maps are critical to keeping track of people. In the Command Center we have the maps of each area assembled on a map board on a 4 by 8 sheet of thin plywood. This makes it much quicker to locate a group and see the big pciture of the area rather than flipping through individual maps. We use Tyvek maps for the most part or laminate them so we can make notes on the maps with a wax pencil.

The other main mapping tool we use is various mapping software programs. For the big overview of the area we use Microsoft Streets and Trips (Streets). Various other mapping and auto route planning software works the same. In Streets we mark the bus drop offs (shown below as a red stop sign) and all the scheduled water drops (shown as blue dots). This is accomplished by dragging ‘pushpins’ onto the sport on the map. You can then add a descriptive label and text to the pushpin and use it as a point in point-to-point directions. We also mark the motel where are Support Team is staying, area hospitals, and Evacuation Locations (red flag). In each area we contact a state park, summer camp or other facility to be ‘on standby’ in the event that we had some major event that required us to evacuate one or more entire groups. I learned this lesson the hard way back in 1998 when we had the remnants of a hurricane hit Shenandoah National Park and the rangers decided to close the whole park and required us to evacuate all of our groups.

Using Streets we are able to provide point to point directions to our charter bus drivers and to our Support Teams. In the event of an evacuation or minor medical transport we can help guide the Support Teams into the group’s location. In addition to Streets we also use Satellite Photos extensively through Google Maps on the Web, Google Earth installed on laptops, and Microsoft LiveEarth on the Web. One of my favorite Web sites is FlashEarth (www.flashearth.com). This extemely talented programmer has provided a way of swithcing back and forth between various satellite photo sources (Google, Microsoft, and others). What’s great is that for different locations different satellite photo providers have better resolution photos. Just click the radio button on FlashEarth to change your source photo.

I’ve used the satellite photos to help find locations for the buses to drop groups off, see if a road really exists, guide Support Teams to groups and groups to Support Teams.

Check out various Map samples below.

Microsoft Streets Overview Map for the Black Forest in Pennsylvania

  • Red Flag = Evacuation site
  • Red Stop Sign = Bus Drop Off/Pick up
  • Blue Dot = Water Drop
  • Red Cross = Hospital


Microsoft Streets Zoomed in to show various water drop locations. You can see how you can add information to each pushpin.


Microsoft Streets zoom-in on The Black Forest at the Ruth Will Trail (the same area shown below in the satellite photos)


Google Earth Satellite Image – Ruth Will Trail in the Black Forest Trail in Pennsylvania. Compare the map directly above to the satellite photo below. The Streets map shows the Ruth Will Trail as a road that connects to Rt. 44 both north and south rather than as the connector coming west out of Rt. 44. The Google Earth map below marks the trail correctly but doesn’t show the road going all the way through.


Google Maps Satellite Image (taken with www.flashearth.com) – Ruth Will Trail in the Black Forest Trail in Pennsylvania (same area as above). This photo doesn’t give enough detail.


Microsoft VirtualEarth Satellite Image (taken with www.flashearth.com) – Ruth Will Trail in the Black Forest Trail in Pennsylvania (same as above). While the Microsoft map is in black and white it shows the roads correctly labeled and does show an undeveloped road that connects to Rt. 44 both north and south.


All of these things are just tools in your tool chest. The key thing in running ‘mega’ programs is that there is an incredible amount of data collection and transmission that has to take place. These are some of the tools that I’ve found indispensable in tracking trips, people, and information effectively.

Rick Curtis
Director, Outdoor Action Princeton University
Founder, OutdoorEd.com

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