Addressing Concerns: Camp Directors Discuss Plans for Crisis Management

The September 11 tragedy and current world events are not only impacting everyone's daily life, they are a serious concern for camp directors and administrators. In the following round table discussion, four camp directors answer questions and share their ideas on how they are addressing these concerns and what they plan to do to continue to provide a nurturing, safe camp experience in light of the changing world environment.

How do you think the September 11 tragedy and current world events will affect your camp?

Greg Cronin — Congressional Day Camp is located in Northern Virginia, and many parents, staff, and alumni were closely connected to the Pentagon bombing. The current state of uneasy anticipation that the country is now experiencing is heightened by the daily visual presence and current condition of the Pentagon building. Because many of our camp families have ties to the government and/or the military, camp registration may reflect current demands of job placement. Because of the national state of heightened awareness, people are rearranging their schedules to accommodate security check-ins at work and airports. Extended periods of restricted airport use and hesitancy to engage in the usual sightseeing activities have also served to depress the economy of our region. While we are located in an affluent suburb of the nation's capitol, economic uncertainty could clearly play a part in decisions about the length of time a family registers for camp and/or any specialty lessons they may opt for in addition to the regular camp experience. We may find that some camper families choose to keep their children at home for a portion of the summer instead of sending them to camp. On the other hand, our camp has been in existence for a number of years, and many campers return year after year. Because of this, we are also seen as a consistent, predictable, and fun part of summer life. This consistency may serve to reassure children and parents that life will continue as before.

Sharon Kosch — I think safety will be an increased concern at all camps. We, as directors and administrators, will need to be concerned about new safety issues in our camps. Parents will be concerned about safety in making decisions about camp — both in evaluating the camp site and programs and in traveling to and from camp. The economy in many parts of the country and with many segments of society will affect a number of parents' ability to choose camps. I also think that our ability to hire international staff may be impacted.

Bill Kaplan — I believe that we will be affected at many levels. First, security—after the shooting at the North Valley Jewish Community Center in August of 1999, we brought in the Sheriff's Department to review our site and our operations. We are again reviewing our security policy and procedures with them to enhance our "sense" of security for our parents and our user groups. We have only received one parent call to date, and there have been groups using our camp everyday since the attack and no one has questioned our security yet. I believe since we are on the West Coast, we feel very removed from the East Coast where most of the events have taken place. Parent's anxiety will be greater. We run programs year-round and I believe we will see a heightened sense of anxiety from parents — for example, more phone calls. Staff training will also change. We plan to hire a consultant who can train our year-round staff in emergency management. During the North Valley shooting, many lives were saved by the quick actions of the staff in the building. Also, the JCC staff responded well after the incident. However, I feel additional training is required to deal with all types of situations especially with ones we would have never have thought of in our wildest dreams before September 11. Also, after the shooting, a crisis manual was created by the JCC and will be reviewed again by my year-round staff.

Mary Helmig — Our program is for thirteen- to eighteen-year-olds. Fifty percent come from outside the United States, and many are sponsored by foundations. Currently, all the foundations are making plans as usual, but we are preparing for the possibility that we may have to cancel if the armed conflicts get more severe. Our program offers training in conflict resolution, leadership, and global issues. We are adding a new workshop entitled "Faith and Politics." I expect that international participants will also have a more difficult time getting visas.

What are the primary concerns and issues you foresee, and what steps are you taking to address them?

Sharon Kosch — Marketing camp is going to be a major concern. We will need to enter into a closer partnership with our parents to provide reassurance. We may need to reexamine our procedures to create this closer partnership — issues such as parents visiting the camp and letting campers call home and use e-mail more often. Safety and risk management are going to be major concerns. Camp risk management plans need to be reviewed and expanded to include responses to regional and national situations that may not have been addressed previously. Looking at things like water contamination, food sources, mail, and chemicals may be necessary. New evacuation procedures may be necessary as well as expanded crisis communication plans. Issues of respecting "difference" and creating inclusion may be more pronounced. Camps may need to review their program and strengthen the messages concerning acceptance and understanding of differences.

Bill Kaplan — Personal safety, traveling by airplane, being away from home, and general anxiety about the state of the world-war, the economy, and terrorism. Another major issue is how to budget the money to pay for all the security needs . . . wow!

Mary Helmig — Our concerns are not with security on our campus. We are most concerned about a significant number of young people pulling out of our program or not able to come.

Greg Cronin — The biggest concern is the perception of parents needing reassurance that camp is a safe and secure environment for their children. Now, more than ever, parents and children need the values of a quality camp experience. Many jobs here are federally driven, and some families are living in a constant state of uncertainty. We are going to remind parents of our extensive safety and security procedures. Camp can, and should be, the one place they can count on for consistent stability. The war experience is a first for many campers and the counselors as well. These young people may show signs of stress played out in many ways that may initially not be recognized as related to national fears. Their war experiences may be tragic and first hand. New events may awaken very real fears that have been superficially hidden. Statistical studies done by our local university conclude that aggressive events, like bombing and fighting, are played out by children in a six-month delay or longer. Camp will just be starting at what may be a sensitive time for campers. Time to talk over events, a slowing down of the pace of camp life, and a rest and relaxation period each day may be needed.

Are you working with outside resources — schools, county health departments, law enforcement, mental health clinics, etc. — to assist you in putting plans together?

Mary Helmig — We will keep our county officials alerted and work with them as we normally do. I am more concerned about backlash on internationals in the U.S. then a threat of germ warfare or anything like that.

Greg Cronin — Several years ago we took an extremely aggressive pro-active approach to crisis management. As a part of that plan, we incorporated the ideas of many experts who helped us to fine-tune our safety procedures. Leading the group is an expert provided to us by the Fairfax County Crisis Team who has advised institutions from all over the country as to the merits of crisis management. We currently have an agreement, should we ever need it, with a local mental health hospital's crisis management team. For camper and staff protection, we have an agreement with a nearby public elementary school as a place to house our camp in a time of crisis. We are prepared to trade shelter, transportation, or facility resources.

Bill Kaplan — We are working with the Lost Hills Sheriff Department to review our security plan, as well as with our parent agency — Jewish Community Centers of Greater Los Angeles. We are also working with Jewish Family Service of the Conejo Valley to provide mental health services for our staff and campers in the form of training and consultation.

What do you foresee as the major concerns of parents?

Sharon Kosch — I think parents will be concerned with the location and security of the camp itself. They may want to find a camp closer to their home for transportation reasons and also because they can visit their campers or get to the camper more quickly if there is any kind of problem. I think transportation will be a big issue — whether it is driving in their own vehicle, or chartered buses offered by the camp, or flying children to the camp. Issues of unaccompanied minors on airlines may be a new challenge. Parents will have more questions about transportation procedures. Parents will be concerned about the types and locations of camp trips — where they are going, what kind of supervision will be offered by the camp, and what type of security will be available at the destination as well as emergency response. We will be reevaluating our program plans and looking at our trip planning. I don't foresee any impact on the wilderness trips, but we will look more closely at trips in which the campers are in populated public places.

Mary Helmig — I imagine some parents will hesitate to have their children fly. I don't think I'll be able to do very much for them to alleviate their concerns on this issue. Our procedures for off-campus trips are extremely tight, and I don't feel we need to make any adjustments. Unfortunately, people who are really fearful at this time will keep their kids at home. I think others will go about life as normal. The camping industry as a whole may see a drop in participation.

Bill Kaplan — I believe that parents will have a lot of concerns including those that the others have mentioned. They will worry about safety — about their child being away from home and something happening — at camp, traveling to camp, on camp trips, etc. We have campers who come from Albuquerque, Phoenix, and Las Vegas. I believe the parents may not send them to camp, or they might accompany their children on the plane to and from Los Angeles. This is only speculation, however. We are also offering eight travel camps. They do not involve getting on a plane, so that might be a plus for safety.

Greg Cronin — After the recent events, we continue to review and update our crisis plan. When parents learn about the extensive plan that we have in place, they are quite relieved and very satisfied. We are, however, assessing, on a case-by-case basis, where field trips and travel camps will be allowed to go. Each location will be analyzed in terms of what it has to offer versus what the inherent benefit/risks of doing the activity are.

Do you foresee staffing problems (i.e., international staff, additional screening of staff)? If so, how will you address these problems?

Sharon Kosch — YES! I think staff recruitment could be a major challenge. Competition for the American staff pool may be very great. If the international camp counselor programs are still able to operate, many staff may not want to come to the United States. American staff may want to stay closer to home. Issues of screening and monitoring and overstays with international staff could be major issues that will force camps to operate differently.

Mary Helmig — We have international staff each year and have had increasingly harder times over the last few years getting them visas. I imagine that will be even tougher this year as the whole visa program is going to be highly scrutinized. I expect we will have less international staff. Our screening process is already very tight.

Greg Cronin — Because we are a day camp, our staff is primarily made up of individuals who currently live here or find housing in the Northern Virginia area. One of the benefits of being in this location is that we have a tremendous representation of cultures and nationalities. One of our biggest staffing challenges this year will be to make sure that all staff feel secure in the camp environment. It will be critical to closely follow our screening procedures and to take the time to explain to all applicants the importance of mutual respect for all cultures.

Bill Kaplan — I am not sure whether the attack and current world unrest will affect the number of international staff who will be willing to travel to the United States. I think it will depend on the situation at the beginning of next year.

How will you address the fears that campers may have (am I safe at camp, are my parents and family safe, what if there's an emergency, increased homesickness, need to keep in contact with parents, etc.)?

Bill Kaplan — We have been working with Jewish Family Service in the past on a year-round program of staff training and consultation during programs. We are also looking at being proactive with parents next summer . . . postcards from us, phone calls, daily Web site info. We already do much of this. We are now brainstorming for new ways to meet the expected needs of the parents and kids.

Greg Cronin — For the past two years we have taken a very pro-active stance on crisis management. We have actively tried to address many different situations in the form of discussion, research, and drills. This year we plan to include additional contact information both in our welcome letter packets to camper families and on our Web site. Safety concerns will be addressed at all off-season camp functions and will be talked about on the first day of each session. Since we have a very diverse population, it is extremely important for us to reinforce some of the fundamental concepts of camping and how it relates to the unconditional support for campers from all over the world. While communication with parents is always important, it will be even more prominent this summer. Division supervisors will be directed to stay alert on changes in daily group interactions, safety questions, and the unspoken meanings behind parent and camper communications. For those who seek further assistance, we have an in-house counselor and a standing agreement with the local mental health hospital's crisis management team that I mentioned earlier. We will again stress to parents how important it is to completely inform us of phone numbers, cell phones, and emergency contacts. Even when parents think they are "always available" for their children, recent events have shown that anything can happen. We will request that parents review existing information as their child enters a camp session for the first time.

Mary Helmig — I will include in my preparation handbooks suggestions for ways parents and children can talk about their fears and encourage dialogue with us before they come. I deal with an older population, and we don't play news reports daily here so I think homesickness and worry will be at a minimum. We will have systems in place so that we can communicate with families in a timely manner in the event of an emergency to insure safety, etc.

Sharon Kosch — We already let girls call home and let parents visit whenever they ask, but we will re-evaluate those procedures to be sure they are "user friendly." We will train staff more vigorously to talk to campers about sensitive subjects, such as safety and will work with staff to provide an even stronger atmosphere of caring within the camp community so safety, security, and apprehension can be pushed to the side during the camp stay. The strongest part of the camp experience is the community we build, and we need to put as much energy as possible into creating this community as fast as we can and drawing each camper into it.

Are you instituting or revising your emergency action plans/crisis management plans in light of current possibilities (i.e., safety, security, backup energy sources, backup water sources, etc.)?

Sharon Kosch — We are doing all of that plus evacuation plans, communication with parents in emergencies, issues that might arise with mail delivery. I'm sure there may be more to address before we begin the next season.

Bill Kaplan — We, too, are looking at all of these issues and trying to foresee others.

Greg Cronin — In addition to all that's been discussed, our year-round staff certainly now has an acute awareness about the condition of the mail. Uncancelled stamps, taped envelopes, and lumpy parcels have taken on a whole new and ominous meaning. Likewise, in our outreach mailings we will be very certain to make sure our return address is in place and envelopes are properly sealed.

Do you have any additional thoughts that may help others in the camping industry?

Greg Cronin — We will try to make everything the same for our campers, but it will be different. We will have plans for emergency closings and, if this should occur, how to reunite parents with children. Tracking illness patterns is also going to be part of camp life. Before camp even begins, we now make certain that each of the staff is empowered to query unknown visitors, not permit any uncredentialed person into a camp area. We have increased the number of walkie-talkies for communication among staff. These will be an added expense for camps — the purchase of batteries, new equipment, and replacement of old staff communication equipment that was lost will be part of the cost of doing business this summer.

Mary Helmig — I think counselors must be trained to deal with prejudicial statements made about Muslims. Even if you hear an eight-year-old say something derogatory about Muslims in general, we need to be sure to address this. We must assure children that Muslims are not bad — it is the extremists who believe that hurting people is a way to create change who are bad. I think children should learn that generalizing will only make us feel more insecure and afraid.

Bill Kaplan — Mary's point is a good one — we need to help our campers continue to embrace diversity and not generalize. For us, I believe it’s most important to be prepared and not take anything for granted anymore. However, it is also crucial for us, as camp directors, to create an envelope of safety for our staff, parents, and campers — to insure the best camp experience for the children attending our camps. Kids are going to need the magic of camp more than ever before. Camp should be perceived as a very safe place. I hope it stays that way.

Sharon Kosch — The camp community needs to work hard to be part of the solution and not a barrier to change. We offer something that children desperately need at this time — community and support. We need to work harder to meet the needs of parents. We need to position ourselves both as an industry and as individual camps to continue to vigorously promote the benefits of the camp experience. We need to remain open and flexible and willing to do business differently — each day brings new challenges to which we need to respond — challenges that are not part of our frame of reference and to which we are forced to find new solutions. We need to remember our business has always been working with people and rely on our established skills and instincts in finding those solutions.

Originally published in the 2002 January/February issue of Camping Magazine.

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