Marshals on Point
On paper, being a marshal at the Isle of Man TT races sounds like the best biking busman’s holiday on the planet. What better way to combine your love of road racing than by feeling like you’re giving something back to it, at the same time as having one of 600 or so potential best seats in the house.
That was the view held by many for a long time, and rightly so. Like pretty much every other touch point at the TT races, the job of marshalling has undergone a review recently, changes have been and continue to be made. I spent the afternoon with the TTMA, tucked away neatly by the side of the TT Grandstand on the Glencrutchery Road. The job of marshalling is a voluntary one, as is working in the TTMA for all but two members (an Office Manager and the Office Administrator) of its staff. Nothing says dedication more than someone who is willing to work for free.
Change for the better for the orange heroes of racing.
I was interested to see how COVID and the Safety Management System (SMS) had impacted the job that the marshals do, particularly after seeing a few negative comments on social media about the way marshals seemed to be being treated. Handily I know plenty about dealing with comments on social media, but when it comes to waving flags, wearing orange and eating sandwiches out of tinfoil I’ve got a lot to learn so I pin my ears back and let the team talk me through what they know.
I start by chatting to Craig McHugh, who as a veteran marshal dealt with Dan Kneen’s accident in 2018 and watched the subsequent investigation into how marshals deal with accidents and the kind of training they have. He was asked to move into a permanent training role and that’s exactly what he did. Craig is now Training Director for the TTMA.
The first thing that became evident to him was that while the training being provided to marshals was adequate, it needed updating and improvements could be made. The job of revamping the training programme started before the implementation of the SMS and where previously there might have been small tweaks here and there over the years, the decision to do a full strip down and refresh of the entire training system was no small undertaking.
THE SAFETY MANAGEMENT SYSTEM (SMS) BRINGS CHANGES DESIGNED TO MAXIMISE THE SAFETY OF EVERYBODY
“Thanks to the SMS, there are new procedures in place that ensure the safety of the marshals, spectators and riders moving forward. COVID and Lockdown provided us with the ideal time to step back, take a look at all our training material and work out where to start. We felt there was a fair amount of repetition and it felt like there was some flow missing from the training process. Lockdown gave us the time we’ve never had before to realise that we wanted to add more hands on elements to our training and improve the online activity our marshals engage with. In a way it’s been great to have this two year break, we were gifted the opportunity to help improve standards and I think we’ve done that. The SMS helped other people working at the TT realise that marshals need to be heard so we’re attending planning meetings with the ACU, Clerk of the Course and with Government now that we just didn’t used to get to.”
Competency was a word that I kept hearing. Where previously you could sign up and find yourself in a team of experienced marshals with next to no training, what Craig and the TTMA have built is a structure that means before you can even think about poking a leg into a set of orange pyjamas, there’s a minimum level of competency a new marshal needs to prove they have, by way of passing a test after online modules that they’ll have completed.
Craig continues - “The Department for Enterprise has invested in the training equipment available to us, along with the new kit on the marshal posts around the TT course. We’ve somehow managed to take the negativity of no TT racing during lockdown and turn it into something really positive that will benefit everyone.”
I think the easiest way to understand how different things will be is to ask the TTMA team to describe the process of being a marshal for the first time in 2013 (I chose a random year) compared to now. I assume I would have signed up online and I assumed wrong.
Craig picks it up - “In 2013 we didn’t have an online portal for marshals. You would get in touch with us and let us know that you’d like to marshal on the mountain (for example). After signing on here you would make your way to your post. You would have either one other marshal or a group of them to work with and you’d have been up there for a long time, probably just watching what goes on rather than getting any hands on experience. Back in 2013 you’d have been stood about watching what goes on a lot. If anyone wanted you to do something they’d have directed you to do so. Let’s not forget that it was possible back then for the experienced marshal on a post to be handed more than one brand new marshal to have to manage and train and that just isn’t acceptable anymore. Which is why we’ve implemented the basic mandatory training for anyone that wants to marshal. Your experience now begins on the TTMA website where you can do everything from register your interest, to carry out training modules. This means a lot of what we do will have been explained to you before practice week has even begun.
THE NEW ONLINE TRAINING STRUCTURE IS ABOUT GIVING NEW MARSHALS CONFIDENCE TO TAKE THEIR FIRST POST
We’ve looked at what we think would be the best kind of online training we can offer, that includes basic flag and radio training. We want our new marshals to feel that they can pick up the radio and speak confidently to race control if they need to. Remember there are lots of different scenarios that can play out, we’ve had incidents in the past where senior marshals have passed out due to the heat, it’s not always about dealing with a racing incident. Even as recently as 2013, the idea of having a website dedicated to the provision of training for our marshals was alien, let alone going on that website and finding online training modules. Things have come a long way and I’m proud of that.”
It’s this collective focus on improving service that will save lives. Craig describes how in 2013 it was entirely conceivable that a rider could be 45 minutes away from Nobles Hospital, even with the helicopter available. The current model that the TTMA works to means that from the moment they ask for the helicopter, they expect it to be on the ground with them within six minutes. If the team in the helicopter decide they want to lift the rider straight to Nobles, then they work on having the same six minute window. That means it’s entirely possible that a racer could be inside a hospital within 18 minutes of having an accident. When you consider how many important cogs are turning for free in order to make this happen you get a sense of the commitment people have to the TT races as well as how far things have moved on.
Jane Corlett, one of the directors of the TTMA - “Our focus has always been the safety of ourselves, the safety of the riders and the safety of the spectators and anyone else. From 2022 onwards, nobody will be able to sign on as a marshal without having completed two online training modules, this is the entry level standard we need for you to be effective on your post. The training includes understanding the legislation that protects marshals under the 2016 road races act. The next level of the training you receive will be done trackside at a live event as that’s the only time you can get the kind of experience you need. Flags and procedures make much more sense in a closed roads environment. Those novice marshals will be under the wings of experienced people and nobody would be asked or expected to do things on their own. Unfortunately some people have come into this with their eyes half closed thinking they’ll be spending the day sat in the hedges eating cake, smoking cigarettes and watching the bikes go by.”
I ask if that would be a fair representation of what marshalling looked like ten or fifteen years ago and the response is a collective yes.
Craig can remember it being like that, “I was 16 when I started marshalling, back then we used to be sworn in as Special Constables at the police station, we’d then be handed an orange armband and off to our posts we’d go. Things have changed over the years and we’re no longer sworn in as special constables but we do have the power under the Road Races Act to move vehicles and request assistance from the police to arrest and remove fans that endanger themselves and everyone else if they jeopardise the safety of the racing.”
ONLINE TRAINING MODULES HAVE BEEN INTRODUCED TO ENSURE THE SAFETY OF MARSHALS, RIDERS AND SPECTATORS
Jane expands on the training. “Once you’ve completed your mandatory online training and marshalled during three live track sessions (where you receive further real time training) you can then go onto a full day IMC (Incident Management Course) which is the big one that allows you to take a step up from being a novice marshal. This training is valid for three years. One of the other key changes made recently is having a dedicated UK training team across the UK mainland. This saves Craig from spending his life on the road in the van, but it also means that we can train up more people as we can offer more flexibility when it comes to being trained. We have courses run at ACU house in Rugby, in Birkenhead, Swindon and over here on the island. we’ve travelled to each of those locations and monitored the training to ensure that standards are consistent, which they are. That doesn’t mean we don’t evolve the training, but when we make changes we ensure that they’re made in the same way regardless of where the training is delivered.
Craig ran a weekend of training in Swindon less than a fortnight prior to us meeting and trained up 73 marshals over the weekend, to say we’re busy is an understatement.
Andy Williams manages the IT systems for the TTMA, he expands on the volume of people required to run a session “Marshals pick and choose which sessions they can do. Some people might come for the whole TT, marshal for practice week and then spectate for race week. Because it’s voluntary, it’s entirely up to them how much of their time they’re willing to give up. In 2019 we had just shy of 2000 marshals registered with us, of which we needed approximately 600 per session and there’s 18 sessions to fulfil so you get a sense of the scale that we work with. There are 12 sectors around the course, each of those has a Chief Sector Marshal. Within a sector there are approx. ten Deputy Sector Marshals. We feed the CSM and DSMs the data in terms of the number of marshals they have for their sector and they distribute the marshals to the posts across the sector, ensuring the right balance of skills and experience is met. The CSM knows they aren’t going to have the same team for TT fortnight so they need to constantly monitor the skill and experience levels across their sectors. The key thing we look to do here is make sure that novice marshals are shared evenly across an entire sector but once they’ve qualified as full marshals they can usually then specify which post within a sector they’d like to work on. It’s a given that lots of people like the idea of working the post at the top of Bray Hill because it’s easy to get to, it’s a great spot to see the racing and when the session is finished they’re here in Douglas. Being out on a post on the mountain is very different. It can cold up there and you can feel very detached from the event. Some people really like that though so we have to work hard to make sure as many people are happy with their post and sector as possible. In 2019 we issued full mountain suits in case of inclement weather, when people are warm and dry they’re more attentive and able to do a better job, we’re constantly working on little issues like this to improve the service our marshals provide. We’re already working putting extra huts and toilets out near those remote posts to make the job more comfortable. Our marshals appreciate this, it makes a huge difference in terms of morale.”
The digital red flag system for 2022 does not replace a marshal waving a red flag, they are in addition.
If you’ve read about the SMS you might remember that a digital red flag system has been installed around the course. Some people assumed that this was part of a plan to reduce the numbers of marshals around the course, the TTMA team were keen to remind me that it was an additional safety system, rather than a replacement one. These physical updates that people can see obviously attract opinion, some of it right and some of it wrong. Another thing that people will be able to see is different this year is the marshal points themselves. Craig continues “On the course we used to have, small plywood boxes where all the equipment required on each post would be stored. They would be placed before practice week and would stay out until after the Manx Grand Prix. We’ve replaced those wooden boxes with durable plastic ones and then increased the amount of equipment for each post as well, including more comprehensive first aid kits, medical supplies for medics that might travel to their post, cement dust to deal with oil spills, shovels, brooms, fire proof suits and additional extinguishers. All of this kit is checked off prior to a road closure and marshals know that they’ve been trained how to use what they’re supposed to use. The only thing a marshal needs to make sure they bring is food, drink, appropriate clothing, their warrant card, photo ID and their marshal’s tabard.”
A SEA OF ORANGE
The old soldier in me wonders if there’s a sea of orange behind the grandstand every morning while some kind of parade takes place ahead of people taking up their posts. It’s a lot more simple than that, once trained, marshals notify the TTMA which sessions they can fulfil and then they turn up there on the day. They do have a couple of mountain convoys that form up, one outside of Ramsey and one near the Creg Ny Baa so that mountain marshals can all take up post at the same time. There are four response cars available to the TTMA should marshals need to be moved around within a sector before roads are closed. For marshals that don’t have transport, they begin their session at the Grandstand where a minibus will take them to and from their posts about an hour before the roads closed.
Andy and Jane take the floor to help me understand where marshals come from - About 25 percent of all registered marshals are Manx residents, sixty percent are from the UK mainland and the remainder come from all over the world. By the time TT 2022 starts, the TTMA are on target for a three-fold increase in the number of marshals to have completed their IMC. That means there will be in excess of 1000 fully trained marshals on their database.
A RECORD NUMBER OF MARSHALS WILL HAVE COMPLETED THEIR IMC AHEAD OF THIS YEAR'S TT
Jane describes how training for this year began in September 2021, word got around very quickly that the IMC training had improved, so a lot of existing marshals felt compelled to get involved with the training that they wouldn’t normally do. It’s possible that they thought they didn’t need this training before because they had real time experience and the old training methods were viewed as a bit boring. It’s also possible that we’re all itching to see some racing and doing some training helps pass the time.
Along with this positive change comes some negativity. As is the way nowadays, social media comments seem to be the easiest way to pick apart the work that the TTMA is doing. Craig shared his opinion with me.
“There’s a fair amount of scaremongering at the moment, people saying that we’re looking to throw people under the bus. What we’re doing is the opposite of that. Nobody in the TTMA is saying that the work of the TT marshal hasn’t been professional up until now, but it’s our job to find the best way of making our marshals better than they ever have been at their jobs in order to help both the TT and the Manx Grand Prix thrive in the future. People that are trying to undermine the TTMA online don’t realise that they’re attacking the whole event.” Jane shares Craig’s sentiment “People don’t like change and there’s a fundamental mistrust of things when that change means possibly stepping out of your comfort zone. There are people that think that we as directors are taking brown envelopes full of cash in order to make sure certain changes are made. That isn’t case and neither is ignoring the need to support our marshals. If you follow the training we ask you to do and operate within the boundaries that are defined to you, then you’ll have our full support at all times.”
That support Jane mentions has extended to an ACU approved counsellor, available out of hours all year round for marshals. The TTMA appreciates that marshals might not want to talk about the stress of being on the scene of an incident until they get home after the races. I think our approach as a population to mental health has changed during COVID and it feels like that’s been addressed in a positive way for anyone who is willing to marshal.
MARSHALS WILL HAVE ACCESS TO AN ACU APPROVED COUNSELLOR ALL YEAR ROUND
Jane makes a valid final point. “Some people assume that being a marshal means lots of medical training, but it doesn’t. The travelling marshals have had amazing amounts of medical training and are only ever around 90 seconds away from any post around the whole course. The marshals’ job is to deal with everything else that surrounds an incident. Even if you are detailed with the task of getting involved with an injury, chances are you’ll be carrying the first aid box out to the traveling marshal and then manning the other end of the stretcher should somebody need to be moved to a safe place for further treatment. We do get marshals who make it clear that they don’t like the sight of blood and that’s okay, we’re not going to push someone into doing something they don’t want to do and there’s plenty of other jobs to do where someone can feel that they’re adding value to a marshal post.”
Much like when I was on the Island researching for the SMS feature I wrote last year, I left the TTMA and wandered away from the grandstand feeling like the team here has faced up to a sizeable challenge. The enforced layoff due to COVID meant that they could do more than take the easy option of a quick fix, they’re committed to making changes for the better.
I have absolutely no doubt that there will be people reading this that feel that the TT is changing beyond recognition. That somehow in making people better marshals while striving for positive change, the romance of the TT races will be lost. I think everyone is entitled to their opinion, but ask yourself if the TT you can remember is better than the one you haven’t been to yet? The honest answer is you don’t know until you try and the team at the TTMA are trying as hard as they can to make marshalling, racing and the future of the TT safer for everyone.
If you feel like you’ve got time to offer and would like to become a marshal, click here and read more about how to get involved - https://www.iomttmarshals.com/faqs