Building a Culture of Safety: Camp safety director ensures safe environment

by Norman E. Friedman, M.Ed.

The care and safety of other people's children while at day or residential camps has been a priority of camp owners and directors since the first camp experience some 140 years ago. As a camp owner or director, your priority for safety is an innate, focused, and constant preoccupation. After all, the physical and emotional condition of a child returning home each day or at the end of a season is the primary concern and interest of both camp directors and parents.

In the "old days," camp management was simple compared to what camp directors face in the twenty-first century. In the past, camps faced less regulations, fewer demands, children much easier to manage, staff who clamored for jobs, and parents who were far less opinionated, confrontational, and interested in control. The world has changed dramatically and the camp industry has not been exempt.

Today, creating the culture of safety demands an on-going, carefully-thought-through, intelligent system of examining every predictable, expected, and unexpected scenario that could compromise the safety of a child or adult at your camp. Assigning a staff member as a safety expert may help create a culture of safety and spread the priority of safety among staff. It may also bring greater objectivity, integrity, and honesty to the issue of safety.

Director's Goal: Impeccable Camp Safety

The camp safety director's primary responsibility would be returning campers home in the same or better physical and emotional condition as when they arrived. This individual will keep up with current regulations and trends in camp health and safety and will teach and supervise others toward the attainable goal of impeccable safety at camp.

Characteristics to look for when identifying candidates for camp safety director include five or more years or camp experience, good communication and presentation skills, responsibility and reliability, a good working relationship with the camp director, and an interest in a long-term relationship with the camp.

Areas of Focus

The Gene Ezersky Camp Safety College has identified seven major areas of camp that should be the focus of the camp safety director.

Kitchen and food services
The camp safety director should work to make the camp kitchen safer and more efficient in order to reduce health hazards. This includes studying safe methods of food storage, serving, and cleaning and equipment maintenance and inspection.

Health and sanitation
The director should study the latest health laws and know about pollution and sanitation in and around the campsite, including the inspection of water, septic tanks, leach fields, wells, and soil remediation. The individual should review the need for health history records of campers and staff and the need for policies for drug use, drug testing, confiscation, and consequences.

Emergency preparation and management
The director should be knowledgeable about appropriate responses to and management of safety incidents, injuries, and catastrophic situations and should help with the development of preparation and management plans for their facilities. He should know how to handle public relations issues with parents, camp families, and the media after incidents have occurred.

Leadership and recommended solutions
The camp safety director should have knowledge of staff hiring practices and evaluations and know how to use staff orientation to promote a sense of responsibility toward campers, peers, and parents. This individual will educate camp counseling staff on safety decisions.

Facilities and grounds management
The director should develop inspection lists for facilities and activity areas, know current safety codes, and develop maintenance plans to determine needed repairs.

Transportation and travel supervision
The director should know current laws for drivers, licensing, and driver testing. He should also be involved with vehicle maintenance, fueling, and storage.

Latest activities programs and safety issues
The director should study the newest and safest equipment for camp programs and schedule inspections by certified individuals for activities such as ropes courses, riding areas, climbing walls, rappelling, go-cart tracks, and other areas.

Training and Certification

Camp safety directors can be come certified through a program offered by the Gene Ezersky Camp Safety College. The program will help the safety director learn more about the above topics and help them design solutions to current problematic issues. Courses are offered at most American Camping Association regional conferences or students may chose the home campus option. Monthly courses are also held in the New York area. When all of the requirements are satisfied, students are expected to take continuing education courses once each year to stay current with regard to the newest safety data gathered by the faculty.

Benefits of a Safety Director

A camp safety director may prove to be a valuable asset to your camp. This person will be able to assist with staff training before and during the camp season and will help to stress to counselors the importance of keeping campers safe. The camp owner or director will receive up-to-the-minute information about incidents at camps and recommendations about how to improve their safety practices and procedures.

Improved camp safety will reduce the frequency and seriousness of incidents, and insurance costs will reflect the improved performance. Ongoing emphasis on safety will enhance a camp's standing with families, staff, and the community.

Given the mandates camps face and the plethora of regulations, it makes good sense to have a trained individual leading your safety endeavor. Safety of children and staff clearly depends upon a culture that is carefully and thoughtfully built. It begins with a commitment from management.

Originally published in the 2001 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.