Crisis Response Training: Coaching Non-Counseling Staff to Respond

By Linda Ebner Erceg, R.N., M.S., P.H.N.

The power grid has gone down.
Forest fire is threatening the camp property.
The water supply is contaminated.
There's been an industrial spill, and camp must be evacuated.
Critical computer systems have been hacked into.

These crises — all stemming from sources outside camp — are getting more attention from camp professionals. We used to focus most on incidents that were camp-bound, incidents such as a lost camper, a waterfront emergency, or a building fire. But in today's world, we must also attend to events arising from the external community.

When these events occur, it's often non-counseling staff who become the behind the scenes, go-to team. While counselors focus on the campers — certainly a critical need — non-counseling staff can be drawn into preparing for and responding to the threat in ways that support life safety, help contain the incident's impact, and address business continuance. Yet there has been little discussion about the preparation needed by these people. That is the focus of this article. It draws on information we learned during the summer when Colorado was on fire, the time when flood and torrential rain hit the west coast, when the power grid failed from Toronto to points south, and from the changes in our response systems that were driven by 9-11.

The power of this information rests on the theme of preparedness: By taking time to train people prior to an incident, you strengthen the camp's response capacity and discover points of potential break-down; points that can then be addressed before crisis occurs. Preliminary crisis response training is like an immunization; it lessens the potential that a given threat will overwhelm the system it's designed to protect.

Understand the Needs of Non-Counseling Staff When Responding to Crisis

There is typically a core of administrative or leadership staff who are notified when crisis occurs. This core team is the decision-making team; they direct the actions of others. They are the group who maintains surveillance over the entire crisis situation. Depending on its nature and the extent of impact upon operations, this group could be as small as one or two people or as large as eight to twelve. The core group often develops the camp's crisis response plan.

Non-counseling staff will respond best when they know who is on this team and when they understand the crisis plan, so explain it to them. Talk about how decisions will be made and how those decisions will be communicated. Explain the core team's priorities: first on life safety, then actions that contain the crisis, followed by those designed to support business continuance. Explain how the core team will utilize counseling staff, supported by a core team member, to focus on the campers. That frees non-counseling staff to help in other areas such as getting food and water to people, responding to parents, generating a record of the camp's response, helping to secure the site, and/or maintaining critical equipment and supplies. Understanding the camp's crisis response plan helps staff understand how their role fits into the big picture.

Also ask each staff member about their personal ability to respond should camp need them. Have them talk with those at home to make a determination about their ability to help camp. Some people will be unencumbered by personal needs and ready, if needed, to give 100 percent to camp. Others may have children, elderly parents, or others who rely on them. Some will have property that needs their attention. These folks may not be able to focus on camp and will be better off if that's acknowledged and they're directed to their home. Most noncounseling staff will fall between these extremes; they could help camp if . . . (fill in the blank). Preplanning may address some of these concerns for people while others may find that they really are tied to an eight-hour work day or some other timeframe. The critical point is to ask the question, know the status of each person, and revisit the question periodically (perhaps during performance appraisal time).

Also recognize that camp people typically have high affiliation needs; they want to help. That desire, however, doesn't mean they know what to do. Most have never been in a crisis and those that have may have lingering memories that need to be processed. Ask about this. Talk about the feelings that can surge to the surface at times of crisis, feelings such as anxiety, fear, nervousness, and excitability. Come back to the message that being prepared helps one cope more effectively with emotions that can get in the way of an effective response.

One of the best ways to minimize the potential of a crippling emotional response is through personal preparation. For this reason, encourage noncounseling staff to build their response skills through strategies such as taking first aid/CPR courses, volunteering with organizations like the American Red Cross' disaster response team (which provides some excellent and free disaster response training), and creating their own family response plan using resources such as those found online at www.ready.gov. This kind of coaching provides two benefits, one to camp and another to the employee families, making it a win-win situation.

Plan a Series of Training Sessions for Non-Counseling Staff

People who respond to a crisis do best when they have experience with both the response process and the people with whom they'll interact. With this in mind, schedule a series of meetings with the group that, ultimately, results in achieving these two outcomes — the more interactive the training session, the better. Assuming a two-hour training period, the first two sessions might look something like what's outlined in the Sample Sessions Training.

Readers will note that the sample sessions include mention of table-top exercises. Table-top exercises are interactive, problem-solving activities designed to mimic crisis situations and, in working through the scenario, allow participants to exercise critical thinking, understand the scope of what may be asked of them, and identify both strengths and challenges. Table-top scenarios for noncounseling staff are most effective if the first couple of scenarios reflect reasonably anticipated events and allow the participants to work from their familiar role at camp (food service addresses nutrition needs, facility focuses on physical plant, office staff concentrate on record access and record keeping, etc.).

Here's a table-top scenario that might be one of the first given to noncounseling staff:

You're on an errand that has taken you into town. You're by yourself in the vehicle and come upon the scene of a motor vehicle accident. Police are diverting traffic around the incident. You hear sirens behind you. As you follow the police direction, you see that one of the vehicles is the camp van. It's in the ditch, rolled on its side, and people surround it. You know the van was out for a day trip; it's filled with campers and a couple of staff. What do you do?

A table-top such as this can be verbally delivered to the group and then time allowed for each person to think through — possibly write down — their action(s). After a few minutes, ask each individual to partner with someone else and share their responses. The resulting discussion often elicits a few "ah-ha!" discoveries as well as prods broader critical thinking, including how quickly information gets routed to camp and to whom, whether or not the staff member enters into the motor vehicle scene, who needs to know what about trips out-ofcamp, and so forth. For this initial tabletop, keep the debriefing process focused on the staff member's initial response rather than what's triggered once camp is alerted (that can come later). The intent of this situation is simply to get people thinking and use what they already know.

Another early table-top might be based on a looming crisis: forest fire threatens, a hurricane is coming, or flooding is anticipated. The leader has called the staff together and delivers this message:

As you know, we anticipate the [name the incident] to hit camp within the next 36–48 hours. Our counseling staff are working with the head counselor to get the kids ready for evacuation. I need you to take time right now to consider what's absolutely essential for you to do your job during evacuation. Make a list of required supplies. Our priority is life safety, the things this group needs to support that, and communication with parents. Right on the tail of this are those actions that will help minimize the impact of this disaster, so think about necessary records, shelter, toilets, communication, and so forth. Remember to talk with other staff whose actions might support your needs. OK, I want those lists in the next half hour. I'm sticking around here. Let me know your questions. Let's get to work . . . .

There are a number of table-top scenarios that could be developed. Start with a basic focus and, as the staff gain skill, add complexity. The debriefing process is as important as taking time to work through the scenario. In leading the group through debriefing, ask both about tasks as well as feelings. People tend to put higher priority on one or the other, depending on their orientation. Knowing this can help the core team identify people who may be the best fit for specific aspects of the crisis response plan.

Another concept, one introduced in the second outlined session, is NIMS training. These letters are an acronym for the National Incident Management System (NIMS), a plan for crisis response that has been adopted across the U.S. by police, fire, and ambulance personnel. The system enables effective communication among different entities, streamlines the incident's response pattern, and assures allocation of resources that complement priorities. In today's world, our camp communities need to be both familiar with the NIMS system and connected to the plan as it exists for the community surrounding camp. Should a camp crisis be of the type at the beginning of this article, camp needs to be able to effectively interact with others. NIMS training followed by participation in the community's planning process will be a definite asset, one not to be minimized. Read more about this online at www. training.fema.gov/IS/NIMS.asp. It's possible to do some NIMS training online, so take advantage of your tax dollars in action. But remember, nothing can replace talking with the community's crisis response planning team to inform them of camp needs and discuss what supports camp might provide to the community. This task should be assigned to someone on the camp's core planning team and information relayed to staff.

What's Next?

Additional training needs of noncounseling staff will be apparent after two or three sessions. In addition, the core planning team will gather information about both the depth of staff support and potential trouble spots in the crisis response plan. Where a camp goes from here will be a function of factors such as these. At minimum, consider doing at least one table-top with non-counseling staff each year supported by one-on-one training for new hires. Use the incidents that do occur — especially the "near misses" — to bolster training and plans.

Finally, sometimes one might feel that efforts to build crisis response capacity should take second place to the day-today incidents that crop up. If you believe this, you've never been in bed with a mosquito.

Linda Ebner Erceg, R.N., M.S., P.H.N., is the associate director of Health & Risk Management for Concordia Language Villages and executive director of the Association of Camp Nurses in Bemidji, Minnesota.

Originally published in the 2010 May/June issue of Camping Magazine.

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