The Blackout of 2003 — Northern Ohio Camp Directors Discuss Emergency Procedures

On August 14, 2003, a major power outage stretched across the northeast from New York City, Cleveland, Ohio, and Detroit, Michigan, to Toronto and Ottawa, Canada, affecting approximately 50 million people. Several camp directors from the Cleveland/Northern Ohio area recently responded to a brief survey — answering questions about the blackout dilemma from their individual experience and insights. They shared risk management procedures, challenges faced, and their sheer resiliency during a time of unsettling concern.

What procedure, that you already had in place, proved most helpful to you?

David Birkhead — As with all ACA-accredited camps, Centerville Mills has procedures in place for just about anything. The same is true regarding our water-treatment plant for a variety of scenarios. For the “Blackout of 2003” the procedure was followed regarding long-term power loss. This procedure addresses issues regarding depressurization of our holding tanks, the location of water main shut-off valves, and a list of emergency direct-dial numbers to power companies, generator suppliers, and water-supply companies.

Tim Fox — Due to the timing of the blackout, our first thoughts were how to provide food and how to provide enough light to keep safe. From previous power outage experience, we had already purchased battery and propane-powered lanterns. We had already discussed appropriate places to place each of these lanterns to provide sufficient light and to keep campers safe. Thus, each cabin was given a minimum of two lanterns, the bathhouse had multiple lanterns, and then we utilized the propane lanterns and mounted them to our light poles around our pathways and mounted a lantern at our nurse’s station. The food was an easy solution since it was the last day of camp. We were able to pull out charcoal, and grill hamburgers that we had available in the freezer. We added chips and had a cookout with the kids.

Rich Garbinsky — In all honesty, we lost power for only ten minutes. Parents called our office to see if everything was fine, and our response was that we had 275 people in camp who had no idea of what was going on in the rest of the world. We have a call list and phone tree ready for emergencies that we would have used if we lost power.

Doris Rudolf — We used the emergency action plan for the facilities and the section on what to do in case of a power outage.

What changes have you made or what procedures have you developed because of this experience?

David Birkhead — Just through coincidence, Centerville Mills had reviewed our emergency procedures regarding water supply just the week before the blackout. We realized that as a facility without any back-up generators, we did not have a back-up supply of water. As a result, the day before the blackout we received an order of enough back-up water to supply the camp’s capacity with a twenty-four-hour supply of drinkable water. This then allows a period of time for adjustment, location of generators, and additional water if needed. Despite the blackout, power outages are not rare to our area, and in the future, we are planning the installation of back-up generators. The last area of change/preparation comes from our Port-a-Potties that supplement our existing facilities for day camp use. We hate them. They are an eyesore and often smell, but when your power is out and you can’t flush toilets, they are a miracle invention.

Tim Fox — Like I mentioned, we had a previous power outage; however, the earlier power outage only lasted a couple of hours, and the lights were restored before dark. Due to that outage, we had a plan already put in place. The only addition we made to the plan as we were enacting this was that our evening program was automatically switched to a campfire gathering, and we had staff do additional bed counts, staying aware that kids may be afraid of camp being a little darker than normal.

Rich Garbinski — The change we made on the fly was to check with other area camps and recreation departments to make sure they were ok and had contingency plans. One area recreation department day camp did come and spend the day with us on Friday because they had no water or power.

What was the most difficult part of the lackof power to handle? How did you handle it? Will you now do something different/additional to address this contingency?

David Birkhead — The most difficult part was the management of calls from day camp parents stuck in traffic and trying to pick up their kids as well as the incoming calls from resident camper parents concerned about their children. With an adequate number of phone lines, this was just a staffing situation of manning phones and assuring parents that procedures were in place for the safety of campers and quality of the water. This same message was placed on our outgoing voice mail as well as a reassurance that camp would continue for the remainder of the week.

Tim Fox — I think the most difficult part of the lack of power was running short on water. We now know we need to have a larger bottled water supply available at all times and have a contingency plan to handle that as well. I feel the overall effectiveness of the lanterns worked well, and the food was well prepared too. I think we will be purchasing more lanterns now that we see what was needed to better light more areas of camp.

Doris Rudolf — The most difficult part was the lack of water and communication. We used walkie-talkies to communicate to other staff members that were not in the building. We did evacuate and close our building.

Can you estimate the financial impact this blackout had on your operation (for example, lost food, purchase of generator or bottled water, etc.)? Was any of this impact covered by insurance?

David Birkhead — Centerville Mills did not have any significant financial impact with exception to the creation of a back-up water supply.

Tim Fox — Nothing was covered by insurance, but I would estimate loss being approximately $2,000. Luckily, this was our last night of camp, and we had very little amounts of food left over in the kitchen. Added costs included the purchase of batteries and additional propane.

Doris Rudolf — Close to $1,500. I sent out “REC BUCKS” (parents/children can use them toward any future program or merchandise) instead of refunds for day camp.

What was the most unexpected situation that arose during the blackout?

David Birkhead — With cell phone towers being overwhelmed by the increased communication, it was difficult to contact our out-trips group. Fortunately, through the remote design of our out-trips program, they don’t rely on electricity and were unaffected.

Tim Fox — I don’t believe anything unexpected took place. We felt we were well prepared.

Rich Garbinsky — We actually only received less than ten phone calls regarding the power outage. I thought we would have had more.

Doris Rudolf — The length of time of the blackout was unexpected. We closed day camp on Friday, August 15.

What were you able to do to address communication needs — with parents, with groups out of camp, with any necessary emergency transportation needs?

David Birkhead — After providing customer service to the large majority of incoming calls and concerns, a clear and reassuring outgoing voice mail message seemed to handle most communication needs.

Tim Fox — Our community is very aware of our program and knew we could have needs. Our phone system does have a battery backup, so we were able to maintain phones to notify parents that their children were safe and not to try to drive during this situation. The local hospitals all have emergency generators and operated as normal, so emergency needs were well covered.

Doris Rudolf — There was a meeting with the assistant fire chief the evening of the blackout; parents were not called to pick up their kids early from day camp because the phone lines were down. We called parents early Friday morning to inform them that the facilities were being closed and that day camp was being cancelled.


David T. Birkhead, Associate Executive Director of Camping Services
  The YMCA of Greater Cleveland, Centerville Mills
  Location: Bainbridge Twp., Ohio
  Number of campers: 200-400
  Number of staff: 65
Tim Fox, Director of Camp Services
  Camp Cheerful (day and resident camp)
  Location: Strongsville, Ohio
  Number of Campers: 130; 80 Day Campers, 50
  Number of staff: 50
Rich Garbinsky, Director
  CYO Camp Christopher
  Location: Bath (half way between Akron and Cleveland), Ohio
  Number of campers: 225 (during the week of August 14)
  Number of staff: 50
Doris Rudolf, Recreation Supervisor
  Strongsville Recreation Department (summer day camp)
  Location: Strongsville, Ohio (Drake Road Facility and Ehrnfelt Recreation Center)
  Number of campers: 35 in each camp
  Number of staff: 5-7

Originally published in the 2003 Fall issue of The CampLine.