In July 2011, Anders Brevik detonated a "car bomb," killing eight people in the Parliament Building in Oslo, Norway. He then proceeded to shoot and kill 69 participants at the Workers Youth League Summer Camp on the Island of Utoya. He entered the camp property by killing the security guard. Teenage campers attempted to flee by running and swimming away from the camp property.1 Too often, we think "it could never happen here/to me."

While the above situation is one extreme, being prepared for a variety of scenarios is critical in today's world. Other potential security situations that could occur at your camp include:

  • Several camp alumni come visit during the all-camp event.
  • An individual from the company that provides and checks the chlorine at the swimming pool arrives during lunch to service the pool.
  • A sorority (rental group) is hosting a "pledge event" at your camp. The first night of the event, a group from a fraternity comes to "visit." You have locked the gate, yet they choose to abandon their cars and walk up to camp — carrying a keg of beer.
  • In monitoring the police scanner, you hear of an active threat at a facility located three miles from camp. There is no other news at this point.
  • During dinner, a staff member unlocks the gun storage cabinet and steals three rifles. He then gets three boxes of ammunition. He walks into the dining room aiming/waving the rifles at campers and staff.
  • After an all-camp activity, it is discovered that an 11-year old camper is missing.

Would you be prepared to deal with these scenarios? The primary focus of this article is security in a variety of situations. Having a basic plan is important. Training on and rehearsing the plan is critical.

According to ACA's research, there are 14,000 youth camps in the US, with 14 million participants attending camp each year2.

As part of her master's thesis3, Jenika Doberstein sent a survey to a random sampling of youth camps related to camp security and preparedness for disaster response. Natural, humancaused, and technological disasters were the focus of the research. The 66 respondents were from 23 states and Canadian provinces.

  • Fifty-four percent offered day camps, 68 percent offered resident camps, and 14 percent offered wilderness programs.
  • Eighty-eight percent of the camps shared they have a formal emergency and disaster management plan or an emergency action plan (EAP).
  • Forty-four percent of the camps indicated they have indoor space in the event of an active shooter.
  • Fifty-four percent of camps stated they can transport all campers and staff in an hour to a designated location.

The Redwoods Group, an insurance company, reported that in 86 percent of the recent visits to customers, Redwoods employees were able to get inside of the building without being questioned.4

In an April 2015 Huffington Post article5, security consultant Joshua Gleis warned that many camps are failing to adequately deal with the fact that summer camps have become what is known as a soft target.

Gleis also states that as schools have begun to tighten their security protocols making them more difficult to attack, summer camps often remain wide open. The good news is that much can be done to change this.

In talking with individuals from large organizations that work with multitudes of camps (YMCA, Union for Reform Judaism, JCCA), and in reviewing the recommendations from the Department of Homeland Security (DHS) and other security resources the following are actions that should be taken by all camps.

According to the Federal Emergency Management Agency (FEMA), emergency management functions are generally grouped into four phases: mitigation, preparedness, response, and recovery. The grouping of emergency management functions is useful for classifying and conceptualizing activities. While conceptually useful for targeting efforts and resources, the phases of emergency management are not distinct — activities in each phase often overlap.6


  • Conduct a "safety and security" audit of your property.
    • Consider having an outside consultant conduct this audit (or your local authorities such as police, sheriff, or emergency management).
    • Someone trained in this skill will view your property and buildings with a trained eye and critical lens. They will identify "challenges" you might miss.
  • Recognize that deterrence is critical (gates, guards, cameras, someone near the entrance to camp, someone in the front of the office, use of signage, lights, etc.) You want to send a message that you take safety and security seriously.
  • Once you have analyzed the nature of your facilities and programming, create standards and protocols in safety and security. This will be the basis of your plan.


  • Establish a solid relationship with local government agencies (police, fire, sheriff, public lands contacts, Department of Transportation, and if near train tracks, the rail road) as you work to develop your plan to address identified threats while incorporating your responses.
    • Make sure to share pre-planned entry/exit routes and any necessary access codes for the local fire department, law enforcement, emergency medical services (EMS), etc.
    • Provide detailed maps of the facility to the dispatch system(s).
    • Invite key individuals from the agencies for a tour of your facility. Have them for lunch. Allow them to host trainings at your facility.
    • Hold a pre-season, in-person briefing.
  • Develop your plan.
    • Use the information obtained in your "audit" and recommendations from the local authorities. 
    • Consider using a template, which can then be adjusted and/or expanded for the various situations such natural disasters, humancaused disasters, etc.
    • There are many resources available — talk with your local school district, camps in your areas, community centers, and places of worship. Determine how you might work together.
    • Realize there must be some flexibility in any plan based on the reality of the situation.
  • Review your plan annually. Things change!
  • Train, rehearse, train, rehearse, train, rehearse:
    • Training your staff to manage urgent situations is critical.
    • Consider who needs to know what and realize that all staff (and campers) need basic information so they know how to respond immediately and appropriately.
    • Your plan should include responses for the most common (weather-related issues), for missing campers, active threats, etc.
    • Staff are the eyes and ears — train them for different scenarios so they can use their best judgment.
    • Rehearse different scenarios at different times (during the various levels of staff training and with campers. Remember — most campers will have received similar "training" at school).
  • When available, take advantage of "reverse 911" and/or county emergency text message systems. These can alert you to severe weather, active threats, fires, etc. Depending on location, some camps monitor the police scanner.
  • Establish a communications plan with authorities, the media, and parents. Develop your protocols and include this aspect in your training. It is important to respond to parents in a thoughtful, serious manner.


To address the potential "language/ terminology" confusion, consider using standard response protocols (SRP)7 as outlined below.

Hold: "Hold in your classroom/ program area" is used when there is an issue in a specific part of the building/camp that is under control, but not yet fully removed. Business as usual within the classrooms/programs area; doors closed. Remain in place until an all clear is announced.

Shelter: Ordered when personal protection is necessary from dangerous weather conditions such as a tornado, blizzard, or hail. May also be ordered in the event of a hazmat situation in the area.

Evacuate: Ordered when people must exit the building (or camp) due to unsafe circumstances. If student/ camper pick-up or off-site reunification is required, instructions will be communicated by the camp. Staff should bring phones if they are readily available. Take a "go bag" if one is packed and time allows (camps in known fire areas often have campers pack a "go bag" or have counselors pack a "go bag" by cabin. The bag includes a change of clothes for each camper in the event they are away from camp overnight). Leave all other belongings behind and follow instructions.

Some entities (schools, churches, camps) will have a "black box" (think some type of tool box) that will contain important camp maps with cut-off valves for water, gas, and electric noted, important phone numbers, rosters, necessary keys, and maybe a radio for communication with camp staff. Emergency personnel are made aware of this resource should it ever be necessary.

Lockout: Ordered when there is an issue outside the building/off camp property, most often due to police activity in the area that could pose a threat, or a wild animal nearby. Consider moving campers to buildings if possible. All exterior doors are locked while "business as usual" continues inside the school/at camp. Staff must have an increase in situational awareness.

Lockdown: Ordered when there is a threat inside the building (or on camp). Students/campers and staff are secured in the school (or designated buildings). School/camp staff does not communicate during a lockdown. Parents are not allowed on site during a lockdown. Interior doors are locked/barricaded, the lights should be out, and all should do their best to remain out of sight and maintain silence.

Examples of what might occur when:

Severe weather — schools/camps may shelter until weather passes; could delay the release of students/ campers at the end of the day until it is safe to exit the building, or might impact programming at resident camp.

Fire or hazmat situation in the area — evacuation or shelter, depending on location and the severity of fire/hazmat issue.

Threat of violence or weapon on a person — lockout, lockdown, or evacuation, depending on the situation.

Intruder — requires an immediate lockdown; an emergency notification will be sent to parents by the district with any instructions.

Police Activity in the Area — usually a lockout; action may be taken at the direction of law enforcement or any staff member at the school. Communication with authorities will vary during these different scenarios. It is important to instruct campers/ staff to listen and clearly follow any directions provided.


  • Know your assets ahead of time: Who can help clean up and get things back in order if damage has been done? What financial resources do you have available?
  • Once "back and operating," determine what should change — back to the mitigation phase.

Additional terminology used in the event of an active threat includes:

Hide = shelter/lockdown. Consider if campers/staff should be all in one place or a variety of locations.

Run = evacuate, although this would more likely be on foot and toward a pre-designated type of area.

Fight = as it states, throw things, kick, scream, tackle the intruder(s).

Learning from Others
It is important for you to plan and determine what works best for your camp. Once you have conducted your assessment and worked with your local authorities to help develop the plan, there is no shortage of resources that are readily available and can easily be adapted for the camp setting. Some of them include:

A note on terminology: Over the past several years, law enforcement and emergency management departments have "standardized" their language and terminology. School districts are doing the same. Prior to this, different agencies might use different words to mean the same thing, leaving a statement open to interpretation. This caused mis-steps and issues. Generally, the terminology used in this article is what is currently recommended by authoritative sources and used by most law enforcement, fire, and emergency services. A "camp equivalent" is referenced, yet when working with your partners, it is important to use their language and terms. As you work with your emergency contact, having a conversation related to terminology used is important.

Become familiar with and consider using the Incident Command System (ICS). ICS is a standardized approach to incident management that:

  • Enables a coordinated response among various jurisdictions and agencies.
  • Establishes common processes for planning and managing resources.
  • Allows for the integration of facilities, equipment, personnel, procedures, and communications operating within a common organizational structure.

ICS helps ensure integration of response efforts. ICS is a standardized, onscene, all-hazards approach to incident management. ICS allows all responders to adopt an integrated organizational structure that matches the complexities and demands of the incident while respecting agency and jurisdictional authorities. Although ICS promotes standardization, it is not without needed flexibility. For example, the ICS organizational structure can expand or contract to meet incident needs.


Jenika Doberstein is the volunteer manager at Roundup River Ranch and has 15 years of diverse experience in the camp industry. Jenika recently earned her master's degree in emergency and disaster management from American Military University, where her thesis studied the readiness of youth camps in natural, technological, and human-caused disasters.

Rhonda Mickelson is the director of accreditation for ACA. She has an M Ed in outdoor education.

The following individuals contributed to this article:

  • Paul J. Reichenbach, director of Camping and Israel Programs, Union for Reform Judaism
  • Aaron Greenberg, senior consultant for Day Camps Initiative, Jewish Community Center Association
  • John Duntley, senior camping specialist, Membership and Programs, YMCA of the USA
  • Jacob Byrd, program director, Victory Junction Camp, North Carolina.


1 CBS News, July 23, 2011
2 American Camp Association, 2016 ACA Facts and Trends
3 Youth Camps, An American Tradition: Are They Prepared for Disaster? December 2016
4 general-safety-guidance-and-tools/safety-guidance/ camp-safety-and-security/
5 Joshua Gleis, April 1, 2015 Burying Our Heads in the Sandbox: Ignoring Security Huffington Post
6 Federal Emergency Management: A Brief Introduction by Bruce R. Lindsay, Coordinator Analyst in American National Government November 30, 2012 Congressional Research Service 7-5700 R42845
7 i love u guys Foundation

General References