Risk Management: An Open Letter to Camp Staff

Edward A. Schirick, CPCU, CIC, CRM


This letter is addressed to all camp staff / team members — whether this summer is your first or your twentieth, and whether you have primary responsibility for supervising campers, are an activity specialist, or work in the kitchen.

Parents all over the world are sending their children off to camp this summer. Some have confidence born of good experiences, others have trepidation and uncertainty. All share the hope their children will have fun, learn new skills, make new friends, and return home none the worse for wear. These hopes are shared by camp staff, owners, and directors everywhere.

You play an important and leading role in this endeavor because you have been hired to help fulfill these parental and camp owner/director hopes and expectations by caring for these children, your campers. The good news is you are not alone; you are a member of a team, all of whom are focused on the single, most-desired outcome of the summer: a positive, happy experience for every camper. The “buck may stop” with the camp director or owner, but the primary responsibility for campers’ health and well-being — for protecting them while they are at camp — belongs to you. Own it or go home!

A lot of people are depending upon you. The purpose of this letter is to help you develop an attitude of safety and managing risk, offer some suggestions to stimulate your thinking, and share insight.

Take Care of Yourself

Working at camp is fun, but it’s not always easy. As the summer passes, a combination of factors (e.g. long days, increased physical activity, weather conditions, interruptions to sleep patterns, etc.) take their toll. Remember to take care of yourself. Eat right; get enough sleep; don’t drink alcohol or do drugs (including marijuana), as they have lingering effects and impair your judgment; and don’t hesitate to see the camp nurse if you are not feeling well. If you take care of yourself, the chances increase that you will have the energy and stamina to do a proper job of caring for your campers. Injury statistics reveal that fatigue is a significant contributing factor in accidents and injuries to campers and staff.

Know How to Do Your Job

Make sure you know what is expected of you. Ask for a job description if one isn’t provided during staff training. Oh yeah, pay attention during staff training. You might be expected to apply the skills and knowledge taught during training to save someone’s life, prevent a bad accident, or maybe avoid injury yourself. Ask questions if you are uncertain. Commit to doing the best work you are capable of doing. You owe it to yourself, the other staff, the camp management, the campers, and their families.

Be Aware

Be present every period, every day, all summer. Engage. Try to foresee the consequences of camper actions and behaviors. Learn how to identify risky situations and take proper steps to prevent accidents and injuries. Think and remain cool under pressure.

Bob Ditter, a respected Camping Magazine author, licensed clinical social worker, and camp staff trainer, may have described the role of a counselor best in his May/ June 1999 “In the Trenches” column: “Another way to view the role of a counselor with children is as a wise, benevolent, and caring older brother or sister. An older brother or sister wouldn’t let a younger sibling do something to hurt themselves or others. An older brother or sister would intervene when a younger sibling was getting too wound up. Older brothers and sisters care for their siblings and have fun with them and take an interest in them while still being able to put the brakes on when needed.” That message is still relevant today.

It is essential to know how to respond on the verge of chaos with appropriate techniques to bring things back under control. Experience has shown staff awareness and attention reduces the risk of accidents and injuries. How will you respond when needed?

Watch Horseplay

Most children love to be chased, tickled, and twirled around until they are dizzy. Other campers want to wrestle or jump on your back and engage in rough play. This horseplay is just part of camp. It usually occurs during free time in a bunk, in between periods, or while waiting in line at the dining hall.

The historical data also reveals that many horseplay injuries occur during unstructured periods. Often the injury is a broken bone. Another factor contributing to injuries from horseplay involves staff who lose sight of their primary responsibility. Unstructured time should never be unsupervised. It is not a free period for staff.

Experience has shown that injuries occur when campers become overstimulated. Camp staff need to know how and when to put an end to horseplay behavior.

Pay Attention around Water Activities

Lifeguards have the primary responsibility for supervision at the waterfront, but this is not a time for other staff to rest and relax. Be an effective team player. Supplement the efforts of the lifeguards by being aware of what is going on outside of the swimming area. Helping to maintain control of campers who are not in the water helps minimize distractions for the lifeguards and allows them to stay focused on what is happening in the swimming area.

Wear Proper Equipment

Protective equipment is intended to minimize the severity of injuries in certain activities. An example of protective equipment is a seatbelt in a van. Seatbelts should be worn by everyone in camp vehicles at all times. Remind your fellow staff to wear seatbelts in noncamp vehicles on their time off, too, no matter how short the trip.

Another example of protective equipment is helmets. Wear helmets at all times when engaged in activities such as white water rafting, rock climbing, and bicycling.

Believe it or not, the Healthy Camp Study conducted by ACA several years ago revealed that some staff members weren’t wearing protective equipment, such as personal flotation devices (PFDs), when boating. PFDs should be worn at all times by all campers and staff while boating. Like it or not, camp staff are role models for campers, and when they don’t wear their protective equipment, campers will just follow suit. This is a recipe for disaster.

Be Aware of Bullying Behavior

Pay attention to behavior that belittles, abuses, or makes fun of campers — or other staff, for that matter. One bully can ruin the whole summer and dash everyone’s hopes for a summer full of fun and positive experiences. Bullies come in all sizes and ages. Don’t tolerate bullying behavior anywhere you find it. Don’t ignore this behavior thinking it will simply stop. It won’t. Take a stand and don’t permit this destructive behavior at your camp.

Don’t Drive Too Fast

Driving too fast is a relative issue. It is certainly inappropriate to exceed the posted speed limit at any time while you are driving a camp vehicle, whether it is full of campers and staff or you are alone.

A safe speed depends on driving conditions. Slow down in the fog and rain, on wet roads, and at night. Slow down on rural routes at any time. Speeding definitely contributes to auto accidents. Slow down, reduce the accident risk, and increase the likelihood you will arrive safely.

Know Your Campers

Be sensitive to campers’ issues and concerns. Campers come from a variety of circumstances and backgrounds. Get to know each of them. Remember each is unique with different talents and behavioral issues. Some may have health concerns or special dietary needs. The director or the camp nurse will most likely provide you with this kind of information. Listen to your campers and care for them just as you would do if you were an older brother or sister.

You are on the front line of managing risk this summer and uniquely positioned to help make this summer a happy, positive experience for your campers and everyone depending upon you. Best wishes for success in all your endeavors!

Ditter, B. (1999). In the trenches. Camping Magazine, 72(3).

Edward A. Schirick, CPCU, CIC, CRM, is area senior vice president of RPS Bollinger Sports & Leisure, where he specializes in arranging insurance coverage and offering risk management advice for camps. Schirick is a chartered property casualty underwriter, a certified insurance counselor, and a certified risk manager. He can be reached at 877.794.3113 or Ed_Schirick@RPSins.com. Visit www.campinsurancepro.com.

Originally published in the 2014 May/June Camping Magazine.

Photo courtesy of Catalina Island Camps, Two Harbors, California

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