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Camp Crisis Management: Responding to New Challenges
Over the past few years, the scope of crisis response plans for many camp programs has expanded as camps share specific crisis experiences and network with other industries, such as schools and law enforcement agencies, to find solutions. In the past, crisis response plans at camps focused on child abuse; drownings or other activity-related deaths; vehicle wrecks; and environmental disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, or fires. Today, crisis response plans cover additional concerns such as suicide threats, shootings, hostage taking, pollution and hazardous waste exposures, communicable disease outbreaks, food poisoning epidemics, and the possible sudden implementations of governmental restrictions (such as airport closings). A new level of crisis response planning is emerging in many industries as professionals reevaluate what can be reasonably anticipated and identify resources to help manage these risks.
Creating a Crisis Response Plan for Your Camp
Get the right people
For instance, when EMS is called in for mass casualty responses or hazardous waste spills, EMS procedures and protocols could conflict with your camp’s plans. It’s not that EMS crews don’t care about your camp’s reputation or your procedures for controlling the press. The priorities emphasized to them in their training are “protect yourselves” and “save lives.” The camp director needs to understand that the camp’s priorities and concerns in a crisis may not be the priorities and concerns of the people directly involved in the crisis. That does not mean that the camp director’s concerns are not important and should not be addressed! By working cooperatively with the various agencies, perhaps camp staff could be assigned to various roles. Don’t be surprised if others outside your camp program question the qualifications of those people that you want them to work with during a crisis.
Identify potential threats
You may even want to consider evaluating a combination of crises such as a diabetic or anaphylactic medical emergency during a severe storm that has knocked down trees and power lines, making access to your camp hazardous or impossible.
Prepare for a Crisis
Craft a successful response
One of the greatest obstacles to a successful response occurs when a leader becomes so emotionally involved he is unable to act quickly and appropriately. A timely response is important to the outcome. Consider and evaluate what factors could delay or impair your camp staff from responding to the crisis. Does the time of day, staff time off, demand on EMS, or the camp’s isolated location prevent or just delay a response? Rarely will anyone fault you for seeking more professional help than needed . . . but what kind of professional help does your camp need? Identify the availability and procedures to acquire resources such as search dogs, rescue divers, child psychologists, air flight medical/fire rescue, Center for Disease Control, medical doctors, animal control, electrical and gas repair specialists, sources for bulldozers and industrial machinery. These are just a few of the resources that could prove beneficial if contacted at an early stage.
Plan for a speedy recovery
Train by doing
Crisis managers know that the key to successful staff training isn’t the length of time spent on the training, but the quality of the lessons communicated. The other important key to staff training is repetitive lessons. While there is value in discussing various scenarios that could arise, most of us learn best by doing. Assign your staff members to role-play a scripted scenario or two. Some roles they might play include neighbors posing as concerned parents, EMS personnel responding to and investigating the crisis, reporters pushing for a sensational story and immediate answers, and staff members who are overwhelmed emotionally or task-wise. Because staff members will be assigned many different responsibilities, recording the roleplay with a video camera will supply a visual illustration for later review. In your group discussion, concentrate on what worked and why — discuss the problems encountered and mistakes made during the scenario. You and the staff will likely identify resources (other people or equipment) that might prove helpful in the future.
Manage incoming and outgoing information
You also need to evaluate outgoing information. Your phone operator should have a script for responding to telephone inquiries regarding the crisis. The staff should know who the camp spokesperson is and direct all inquiries to him or her. Visitors or strangers should be escorted or at least wear visitor’s badges. Do you give campers access to phones or the Internet to let parents know they are okay? This practice seems harmless, but campers could communicate inaccurate information.
Write it down
Communicate your priorities
What you consider to be an appropriate response may actually be minimal compared with what you “might have done.” The last thing most directors want to face is “armchair scrutiny” of their actions months down the line that reveal actions that could be interpreted as indifferent or uncaring. Keep asking your professional resources what else can be done or what others have done in similar situations. Your camp’s response will be examined in different ways by any number of groups — the media, parents, other camp directors, the public, and government agencies.
Make crises less traumatic
Copyright Markel Corporation, used by permission.
Will Evans is the Director of Safety Education for Markel Insurance Company where he inspects summer camps, Boys and Girls Clubs, YMCA’s, and day care centers across the country. Over the past nine years, he has written a number of award-winning safety articles and brochures. Evans has provided numerous presentations to the American Camping Association and to a wide variety of camp organizations including the Girl Scouts of the USA, United Way, and National Wilderness Risk Manager’s Conference.
Originally published in the 2002 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.