Having managed hundreds of camp crises, we have come to realize that the majority of events that cause harm to people and reputations fall into four major categories: waterfront accidents, transportation accidents, communicable illness, and sexual misconduct. Camps, similar to the one you call home, have fallen victim to crises in all four categories.
As a staff member, it is your duty and responsibility to prevent as many injuries, accidents, and crises as possible during the camp season. You may be thinking a few things:
- "I've had lifeguard training, I'd be able to handle a waterfront accident."
- "I don't drive the camp vans/busses; I'm not responsible for transportation."
- "Our camp is well cared for and I've been vaccinated; there's no way a communicable illness would affect me or my campers."
- "I would never have a sexual relationship with one of my campers. I'm here to make sure they have a great camp experience, not sleep with them."
"So why me?" you ask. "What could I possibly do to stop a crisis from happening at my camp?"
The answer — a lot. One person has the power to take action that will prevent crises from striking your camp.
Imagine this: You take your campers to the lake for a fun water day; there will be swimming, playing Marco Polo, and a picnic — it's a camp-wide event. You see from across the lake another counselor allowing their campers to dive into the lake, but you know it's shallow in that area. Your instincts tell you it's a bad idea, but maybe the counselor doesn't know it's shallow.
What do you do?
Even with the best of planning and supervision, accidents happen. But if you see another counselor allowing their campers to act in a potentially dangerous or reckless way, you have the responsibility to intervene. Don't ever think, "Well, those aren't my campers, I'm not responsible for them." Either intervene if you are close enough or tell someone else to do so.
Without being the lifeguard, you can utilize your skills by foreseeing how the activity could turn badly, taking action, and preventing the event from occurring.
The power of one.
Imagine this: A young camper is hyper while in the camp van. He is bouncing around in his seat. You don't say anything because kids will be kids, and he isn't harming anyone. A few minutes go by and you hear the side van door open. The camper managed to open the door because the lock wasn't working properly. The camper, not wearing his seatbelt, is thrown from the van while it is in motion.
How do you prevent a situation like this from occurring?
First, understand you have a duty to supervise. You may not physically be driving the vehicle used to transport campers, but if you're in a van or bus, you are responsible for those inside. Second, a quick equipment check may have identified the faulty door lock. No, you are not the driver, but as a passenger responsible for children, do everyone a favor and check equipment — doors, windows, etc. — prior to loading campers into a vehicle, or if you arrive after the loading process has started, ask another responsible adult if they checked the vehicle.
You also have a duty to report reckless or distracted driving by the driver. If you feel the driver is driving erratically or too quickly for the conditions, is texting or manipulating their phone, or is doing any other activity that could impact the safety of passengers, take responsibility and say something — even if you are nervous about doing so.
The power of one.
Imagine this: You take your campers on a hiking trip through the woods for the day. You run out of water and your campers are thirsty. You let them drink out of a nearby stream because it's fresh water and you don't want anyone to become dehydrated. A few days later, one of your campers becomes extremely ill and is taken to the hospital. The doctors conduct tests and determine the camper contracted giardiasis from drinking stream water.
As a counselor, you must be aware that waterborne illnesses exist. It is your duty to prevent your campers from drinking potentially unsafe water. Although you cannot prevent everyone from swallowing some lake water while swimming, cautioning your campers to avoid doing so and explaining why would be a smart decision. You should also pay attention to how food is prepared and stored, especially on outings, as foodborne illness is a significant issue at camps.
You will also be exposed to campers and adults who have not been vaccinated (for many reasons — medical, they come from countries that don't have strict vaccination requirements, or parents have refused to vaccinate). They could be carriers of a communicable illness. It is extremely important that you make sure your vaccinations are up to date prior to the camp season. Many immunizations, like measles and mumps, require two or three doses. Without being immunized, you become a vulnerability for others and expose yourself to serious illnesses — a sure way to ruin your summer.
The power of one.
Imagine this: You notice a counselor and their teenage camper interacting in a way that makes you uncomfortable. You don't say anything because they haven't done anything wrong. A couple weeks go by and you sense the camper's demeanor has changed. She is no longer excited about camp activities and is seen often secluded in her bunk — something seems off. You approach the camper and ask if everything is okay. The camper breaks down and tells you her counselor took advantage of her last weekend. She wants to leave camp and has already called her parents.
It is not uncommon for a teenage camper to have a crush on a counselor or vice versa, particularly when only a few years separate them in age. Understand this: You, as a counselor, may never cross physical or verbal boundaries with one of your campers. This may be unthinkable conduct for you, but that doesn't mean a fellow counselor won't do it. Don't fall into what we call "disaster denial," and say, "I know my fellow counselors. It couldn't happen here." It can. It does. Every summer.
It is also important to recognize that places where children thrive and have fun become attractive to sexual predators — adults who prey on children. This is where the "rule of three" comes in. Never go anywhere alone or be alone in a room with one of your campers. Always have a third person with you, whether that is another counselor or another camper. Alarm bells should ring if you see another counselor alone with a camper.
If you sense sexual misconduct of any type has happened, or may happen, say something to someone before it's too late. If something doesn't feel right and you notice a behavioral change in a camper or staff member, trust your gut and tell someone.
The power of one, the rule of three.
Have Fun, but Think This Summer
Summer camp is supposed to be a fun adventure for everyone, campers and staff alike. But always remember that you are caring for other people's children; they have put their faith in you. You are their trusted authority figure.
If you do not feel adequately trained to identify behaviors of concern in your campers or fellow staff members, whether related to understanding the warning signs of sexual misconduct or appropriate boundaries with campers, or you don't know how to recognize when water is safe to drink, or you don't fully understand the rules related to waterfront activities, ask for additional training.
For many of you, this is all new. You may have been a camper, so you likely remember how much fun you had at camp. Now you know your counselor not only made sure you had fun, but also made sure you were safe.
So this summer, remember, you have the power of one:
- Be observant. If you notice dangerous or potentially dangerous situations, report them. Don't worry that you may be wrong. Better safe than sorry.
- Take an interest in the environment in a camp bus or van, and report distracted or reckless driving or unsafe conditions. Your safety and everyone else's could depend on it.
- Get vaccinated before arriving at camp and learn about waterborne, foodborne, and other communicable illnesses, and how to lower probabilities of contamination among your campers.
- Report behaviors of concern. If the demeanor of a camper or counselor suddenly changes, or you notice conduct that just doesn't feel right, look right, or sound right, trust your instincts. Don't let disaster denial cause you to think nothing bad could be happening.
Have a great, safe summer.
Author's Note: We want to extend our thanks to Edward A. Schirick, CPCU, CIC, CRM, former Risk Management column contributor for Camping Magazine. Thank you, Ed, for your strong commitment to camp safety and the ACA. We have greatly enjoyed working with you the last 40 years, and we appreciate the opportunity you have given us to follow in your footsteps in contributing to this column. We know we have very big shoes to fill!
Suzy Rhulen Loughlin is cofounder of Firestorm Solutions, a nationally recognized leader in crisis management. Firestorm is a subsidiary of Novume Solutions, Inc. Contact Suzy at firstname.lastname@example.org or (845) 796-9811.