by Bari S. Dworken, Ed.D.
What would you do in these situations? Rarely do you have any warning before disaster strikes. In fact, it usually happens when you least expect it - on the first day of camp, on the Fourth of July, or ten days before the end of the season.
A number of experienced camp directors graciously shared how they dealt with life-changing situations that most of us think about, but fortunately have not had to deal with. These camp directors have incredible strength and inner resources. When asked what kept a camp director going during a crisis, he said, "It never was a question that I wouldn't. When problems arise you deal with it."
The following "Ten Commandments of Risk Management" encompass many of the thoughts and lessons these camp directors have learned from their most challenging experiences.
1. Communicate and Practice Emergency Plans.
Having a risk-management plan neatly typed in a glossy red binder on the shelf is not enough, nor is just putting a copy in the staff manual. Extensively training staff is vital. Camp directors who survive crisis situations have emergency plans that have been written and re-written, practiced and practiced again.
2. Clear, Honest On-going Communication Is Critical.
Camp directors continually emphasize the importance of keeping people up-to-date on how a crisis is being handled. Even a little information on a regular basis is better than none at all, especially for your staff. When people know what steps are being taken to deal with a situation, they feel more involved and committed, are willing to work harder, and keep their emotions in check.
The key is to stay calm and organized. Most directors have found that clearly designating one person to hold down the command post and provide information to the appropriate people is essential. It is important to remember that some people may need additional help through a crisis. A child who had experienced a fire in her own home and now sees her cabin burn, a twelve-year-old camper whose older brother is the one in the car accident, or a staff member whose father recently died may all need special help.
3. Choose Staff Carefully and Train Them Intensively.
When asked what contributed to a smooth-running camp, most directors were quick to say it was their mature staff. Choose your staff carefully and then give them lots of risk-management training. During a crisis, key staff can reassure counselors and instruct them to go on with the scheduled programming and be most attentive to campers.
4. Build On-going Relationships.
Certainly when there is a fire, you expect the fire department to respond quickly. How lucky for one camp that when a building caught fire on the Fourth of July, the volunteer fire department was having a picnic just a quarter mile away! Build strong relationships within your local community by inviting people to dinner at camp, having a special event for the community, participating in the local parade on community day, or supporting a local environmental issue.
Your board members, staff, and parents have amazing contacts. You just need to ask! After a storm, a staff member's husband, who was well connected in the community, organized the cleanup. He located transformers, heavy equipment, and walkie talkies; he even recruited 100 Americorps workers to clear brush. A parent took charge of getting porta-pottys in right away.
In addition, don't overlook your colleagues in the camp community. Your local ACA section office can provide a helpful network. The ACA crisis hotline can also provide needed help.
The so-called little things can also make a difference. For example, when the recreation hall at one camp was destroyed by fire, a neighboring camp invited the campers to their camp for the day while the brush was being cleared. When they returned to camp, they found cakes, baked and decorated by another camp.
5. Learn from Past Experiences.
You learn from your past experiences and gain a lot of knowledge about yourself and others. You can also learn from the experiences of other people in your community, organization, and the camp world. What are some of the techniques that others have used to handle bus accidents, missing persons, hurricanes, and plane crashes? Many knowledgeable people can help you in a time of need and before, when you are creating or revising your risk-management plan.
6. Know Your Environment.
When access roads become blocked in a crisis situation, camp can become isolated. Therefore, you must know the area surrounding your camp and identify alternate entrance and exit routes - both roads and more rugged terrain.
You must also clearly understand the methods of communication available in your area. Are there spots where cellular phones don't work? What kind of emergency equipment should you keep in camp? How can you contact others and how can others get information to you? You may need to consider a communication plan where others call a central office or a person off camp property. For example, one camp director instructed parents ahead of time to call another camp, which would keep posted on the emergency.
7. Be Prepared for the Media.
In many cases, reporters and photographers often arrive at camp even before the emergency crew. This can create more than just the initial emergency to deal with. You must have a plan tailored specifically to your situation that can be carried out immediately.
One evening, staff had kept campers in the recreation hall a little later than usual waiting for a thunderstorm to clear. Two of the counselors stepped outside and felt the effects of lightning that had struck nearby. While they seemed to be OK, the camp EMT decided to call the emergency squad to be sure. In just a few minutes the local television station broke through programming to report that campers had been struck by lightning at a nearby resident camp. The director had to work quickly to correct the story and deal with numerous calls from parents.
8. Consider the Long-term Impact.
A crisis at your camp can have a long-term impact on campers and staff, as well as your camp or organization as a whole. Events at your camp can also affect other camps.
How can you best meet the needs of all those involved? If your camp has a board of trustees, be sure to involve them. Don't overlook professional expertise such as grief counselors, lawyers, and medical personnel. Be available to talk with parents about their concerns and share as much as you can on how you think the situation may have
If you are a part of a larger organization, be sure to consider how information will be disseminated. Prioritize who needs to know what information when. You don't want a youth group leader in the community hearing about a major camp crisis for the first time from an eight year old!
9. Crisis Situations Don't Have to Have a Long-term Adverse Effect on Camp.
When situations are handled well, they usually won't have a long-term negative impact on your camp. The attention and care of the director and staff in working with experts to solve the problems and inform parents can make all the difference.
When a camp director died suddenly, his wife and co-director said, "The kids needed to know that camp would go on, especially next year." By sharing her grief and speaking openly with the camp community, being present to receive hugs and gifts from campers and staff who were grieving, and courageously asking dear friends for the help she needed to learn the tasks she had never done before, one camp director brought the camp community even closer together in a time of need.
10. Sometimes Good Things Can Come from a Crisis.
Just when you think that all hope is lost, you may find a ray of light in the darkness.
After a major fire, one camp had to close eleven days before the end of the season. The camp's crisis management team was put to work assessing the damage. A capital campaign was launched. Within two years of the fire, the camp had a new state-of-the art recreation hall, a new center, and three new bunks. The year following the fire, 93 percent of the campers returned.
Following the death of their son, a camp counselor who was killed in a car accident on his time off from camp, one family established a scholarship in his memory. They also continued to send their younger children to the camp for many years afterward.
These ten tips will give you a place to start when considering your camp's risk management plan. Camp program are risky. However, the benefits far outweigh the risks. You owe it to your staff and your campers to be prepared. And if disaster does strike your camp, remember that you are not alone. The camp community is here to support you.
Bari S. Dworken, Ed.D. is an extension educator in organization development with the University of Connecticut Cooperative Extension System. She is the president of the ACA New England Section and has been a presenter at many national and regional conferences. It is with deep gratitude that Bari thanks those camp directors who willingly relived their most difficult experiences so that others might learn a little something new.
Originally published in the 1998 September/October issue of Camping Magazine.