Building Principles: Use Your Staff Spies

by Rick Stryker, P.E.

By the time you're reading this, the snow out my window will long be a memory, temperatures will be high, and camp will be in full swing. Although program and campers are rightfully the staff's main focus, we encourage our clients to ask the staff to be watching for and reporting signs and symptoms of property sicknesses. Our "In-Season Facilities Checklist," contains a list of a dozen or so areas or conditions that may otherwise go unnoticed by the facilities staff as they tend to the multitude of immediate crises that arise every camp day, but which could be easily located and documented by the bulk of the staff throughout the summer. Many of these conditions simply disappear when the campers and staff leave at the end of the season, leaving the site personnel no clue that anything was wrong. This issue, we'll look at a few of the items from that list that could do the most to help prepare the camp for efficient and safe operation next season.

In-Season Facility Observations

One of the most difficult site issues to correct is storm water management. Most often, the maintenance staff is dealing with the results of runoff where it's collected and flooded something. We are often asked to help install a sump or pump because that's where the symptom of the problem appears. However, with more complete information, we can usually prescribe a course that will prevent the water from entering the space by dissipating or redirecting the flow. Your seasonal staff can provide this insight by learning to observe and report to the site manager from where the water comes, and how, when, and where it concentrates. By sketching the flow paths of these runoff streams, an extremely effective plan can be developed that uses the routes that the water already has established. Think about it: These are probably the same washes, ruts, and ditches that the property staff keeps filling in. Water is smart, persistent, and strong. Your plan will be infinitely more effective by using the pathways that it's already formed as much as possible.

Dams, Lakes, Ponds, and Impoundments
There are a host of situations involving the water front that are best identified while the facilities are in use. Despite their unassuming, "no-moving-parts" appearance, dams are quite complex. The downstream side, or face of the dam as well as the bottom of the embankment, or toe, should be regularly walked and checked for wet, soft spots and especially places where water is flowing out. Clear water indicates that the dam itself is saturated with water (as one might expect) and that there is a weakness which is allowing water to flow through. This is a much less urgent condition than muddy water erupting. When muddy water erupts from the dam, the soil in the water is coming from inside the dam itself, and this represents a hollowing out of the dam. About half of the catastrophic (sudden) dam failures are the result of this or similar conditions, with the other half coming from large rain events which flood, then overtop the earthen structure of the dam.

On that note, it's important to remind you that there is at least one moving part to your dam. You may have seen what looks like a wheel on an axle sticking up out of the water. It may also be buried in the dam itself or in a pit on the downstream side of the dam. That's the access to a pipeline valve designed to let water out of the lake as needed. Each and every year, that valve should be opened and closed (actuated) to ensure that it works. Most organizations don't know that such a valve exists on their property. The ones that are aware of it, won't open it for fear that they won't be able to close it again. If your organization subscribes to that school of thought, camp leadership should decide whether it would be better to lose the water in the lake, refilling after the valve is repaired, or to lose the dam altogether.

Septic System Failures
Most of the staff, seasonal and permanent, don't know how a septic system operates. However, you don't have to be an engineer to understand that soft, wet, soggy areas near the shower house are probably indicative of a pending or active system failure. Puddles that remain days after the last hard rain, shampoo bubbles pouring from that big round concrete thingy, or a strong smell of rotten eggs all may be symptoms of big problems. This is more than an inconvenience and expense. You know that this represents a pretty significant health risk to your staff and guests. As often as not, though, the maintenance staff only is called to the shower house when the toilets aren't flushing, and even then, it's all business: Get in, get out, and move on to the next facility crisis. They're not checking for these other conditions, because they probably already have enough to keep them busy.

The Pool
Pool operators can monitor a couple of things to ensure smooth pool operation. You should determine how often the pool needs to be refilled and how much water is actually being added. This requires that a water meter be added to the fill line, whether it's a hose or a dedicated supply. By regularly charting how much (and when) water is being introduced to the pool, you can assess whether the pool and its piping are leaking or whether evaporation is playing the major role. If adding water often seems to be an issue, regular patrols around the outside of the pool fencing (particularly at the bottom of any fill slope on which the pool is built) may help to identify where the water is going. A chlorine test kit will also help remove doubt as to whether the puddle there is pool or ground water.

Another helpful tidbit involves the ability of the lifeguards to see swimmers in the water. If lifeguard stands are properly oriented, sun glare and blind spots can be minimized. Poor visibility is often a condition that summer staff accepts as a fact of life, so it's seldom reported. The fact is that moving a permanently mounted stand isn't as difficult as one might think. In some situations, mobile stands can replace the fixed position and orientations.

Roads and Trails
Perhaps the most often overlooked facility issue involves the roads and trails on camp property. Even gravel pathways most used by the maintenance staff should be able to be called upon for emergency vehicles. These should be well drained and free from blind spots where a vehicle operator who is unfamiliar with camp (i.e., the ambulance driver) can see campers at a significant distance. The travelway surface and shoulders should be stable and solid throughout the length and width, and the drainage ditches should be closely mowed.

Your organization expects every member of the staff to be watchful for situations where your guests could get hurt. Why not take a few minutes out of each staff meeting to talk about places on the property that need attention. If you would like a copy of the "In- Season Facilities Checklist," please don't hesitate to contact us at the e-mail address below. We'll be glad to send you one.

Rick Stryker is a professional engineer with Camp Facilities Consulting, providing study, design, permitting, and construction consultation services to the camp and conference center community. Camp personnel may contact him at 570-296-2765 or by e-mail at

Originally published in the 2005 July/August issue of Camping Magazine.