Crisis Response in a Troubled World

by Marge Scanlin, ACA National Staff

Tragedy can happen quickly and without warning. In response to the war and current world events and the memory of September 11, camps need to look at their disaster preparedness plans. Speculations can cause anxiety and cloud reality. As the national alert status changes and as threats of bioterrorism and other terrorist acts are prevalent in our news, camp directors and administrators must plan for the coming summer.

Issues and Plans Prior to Camp

Designate, if you haven't already done so, a Crisis Response Team. This team is generally interdisciplinary and includes people from camp administration, maintenance, health care, your owners/sponsors, a mental health resource (counselor, social worker, community mental health services), and perhaps a clergy member. The team should work together to develop written guidelines for various kinds of foreseeable emergencies-appropriate parts of which have been rehearsed in camp to be sure they are practical and effective.

It is always important to remain calm and take steps to prepare and educate yourself before being in a situation where you have to act without a plan. Your camp's plan should include discussions of the impact of the war on plans for the summer and what happens if acts of terrorism should strike the United States prior to camp.

  • What are your key marketing messages about the value of a camp experience during times of trouble? During times of war, parents often need additional support and are looking for partners to help preserve childhood and provide ways for their children to have safe and fun educational experiences. Camp can be a respite from a tumultuous world and provide hope for humanity.
  • Will the economy affect registration this summer? Children who have parents deployed in the military or working in emergency response may have losses in family income and need financial assistance to attend camp.
  • How will you communicate with parents about the security steps you have taken to protect their child? Depending on specific events, you may need to step up or change your plans for security. How will you communicate these changes to parents?
  • What types of situations would make it necessary to cancel camp prior to the season? This will vary greatly depending on the individual camp situation, client group, location, local economy, etc.
  • How can you help children during the summer deal with the aftermath of war or other disasters? (For more information on this topic, see the article, "Helping Children Cope with Terrorism and War.")
  • Familiarize yourself with information on Homeland Security Alerts and information on bioterrorism. Know your local resources for support in case of crisis. How does the camp's plan interact with the larger community emergency response plan?

If a Crisis Does Happen in the United States During the Summer

When a crisis occurs, rumors can spread like wild fire. It is important to provide age-appropriate information in a timely manner. You will need to decide what information should be shared by camp staff or by a trained crisis team member or external support individual.

Be sure there is adequate adult support to allow for observers so that individual campers can receive follow-up encouragement as necessary. Have a system in place to identify and refer campers who need extra support.

If the danger is not a part of the immediate camp area and crisis or emergency action is not required, camp directors can help everyone feel more secure by:

  • Working with the crisis team to disseminate the information the team has decided that staff and campers should be told and how and when they are told.
  • Helping to coordinate information between staff and families and between campers and their parents. Help campers communicate and express their concerns with their parents. Everyone at camp may be worried about the health and safety of their family.
  • Providing a predictable routine and schedule. During stressful times everyone is reassured by structure and familiar routines.
  • Understanding and watching for physical symptoms related to stress, changes in behavior, or increased conflicts and discussing them with the camp health supervisor or director.
  • Allowing children to be children. Most children are quite resilient, even when exposed to trauma. They may not want to talk about what has happened and be more comfortable continuing with the regular activities of the camp.

Keep in mind that staff will also need support. Emphasize that asking for support is OK, and have administrative staff accessible to monitor staff to determine what support they need.

If the Crisis Is at Your Camp or the Community Around Camp

Help staff understand and be a part of the plan, if something happens during the summer. Staff should understand that their first concern is always the health and safety of the children in their care.

The American Camping Association (ACA) has been in touch with some school groups to learn more about the crisis planning being done by schools in such circumstances. It is clear that now, more than ever, notification of your local police, fire, and health officials about the location and characteristics of your camp program is critical to help with emergency preparedness!

The following checklist has been adapted with permission from the Douglas County School District. This is the school district in Colorado that is "home" to Columbine High School.

Response Checklist


Steps to be taken
Person responsible
Director activates (pre-determined) Crisis Team and decides what other help should be sought.  
Director or designee contacts camp owners/sponsors to alert them to the situation.  
Contact legal counsel for advice and approval of scripts, statements.  
Document and verify the facts of the crisis to be used in phone scripts, news releases, or prepared statements.  
Director or designee contacts family members of those injured or deceased to gather their wishes for dissemination of information.  
Make assignments for notifying appropriate people.  
Contact insurance company.  
Appoint a single spokesperson who will be responsible for responding to questions/queries.  
Prepare three statements: 1) to be read to staff; 2) for counselors to read to campers; 3) for those answering phones. Contact PR counsel for assistance in preparing statements or strategies.
Assist counselors in working with camper groups.
Designate a gathering place for campers and staff to come and seek support. (Drinks and snacks will help.)  
Arrange extra coverage for counselors to take breaks, or to support them in their tasks at an emotional time.  
Day camps: assist office staff with requests of campers who want to go home. (Establish a system to assure only those with permission are able to pick up children.)  
If needed, discuss and determine best time to remove personal belongings from bunk for return to family (families).  
Prepare a letter to be sent to parents explaining the situation. Director and legal counsel should approve any letter that is sent home.  

Releasing Public Information
During a crisis, the following steps should be taken to assure information is released in an orderly, thoughtful, and controlled manner:

  • Identify the type and extent of the crisis as soon as possible.
  • Document all facts and verify them: date, time, description, persons involved, witnesses, cause (if known).
  • Inform employees of what is happening.
  • Designate a central source of communication.
  • Prepare written statements to be used by office personnel or those handling phone inquiries.
  • Identify a spokesperson.
  • Release information promptly, but only after it has been verified and approved.

Guidelines for Public Information Release

  • Take care not to release information that affects a person's rights including the right to privacy.
  • State and federal laws prohibit, in most cases, the disclosure of information regarding individual camper information, information concerning disabilities, or child abuse.
  • In matters under investigation, release only facts, preferably through a prepared statement.

When Reporters Call...

  • Be polite, cooperative, and honest.
  • Assure that you will do your best to see that someone calls back promptly. (Find out when their deadline is and try to meet it, or tell them you can't.)
  • Ascertain the range of questions before offering answers.
  • Deal only with facts.

Notifying Parents
Perhaps one of the most important tasks of a camp director is to work with parents as your partners in helping to raise their child. Over time, camps have benefited from giving priority to the needs of the child and the parent. It is often best to keep all parents aware of what is happening at camp, knowing that it is better for them to hear about a situation from your factual information rather from the rumors their child may share.

In notifying parents of serious incidents at camp such as a death, a fire, or a response to a difficult situation, here is an outline for a parent notification letter.

Paragraph 1

  • Give factual information on what has happened (following wishes of affected families, if applicable).
  • State your condolences or other appropriate and heartfelt reactions of self, staff, or campers.

Paragraph 2

  • State how camp staff are handling the situation (crisis team actions, support of Grief Counselors brought in to work with campers and staff, other support systems, continuity of camp program).
  • If any counseling or support services are available for parents, let them know.

Paragraph 3

  • If the crisis situation is a death and memorial services have been set up, provide that information.
  • If services have not been confirmed, state this and let them know how to obtain information when it is available.

Paragraph 4

  • State what kind of follow-up support will be available for campers in camp and indicate where they can turn for further community resources, if needed.
  • If appropriate, provide handouts, articles, or lists of Web-based resources

Paragraph 5

  • State any impact on future camp sessions, or activities that must be canceled, changed, or postponed.

Paragraph 6

  • Encourage parents to give emotional support and encouragement to their children.

Paragraph 7

  • Close with an appropriate statement reinforcing that your camp staff works to provide a safe and caring atmosphere for children and youth.

If possible, talk over the contents of the letter you are sending with the family (in case of death) to respect their wishes. Be sure your legal counsel has reviewed the letter as well. Keep in mind that all medical information about staff and campers is confidential. Do not give out any medical information.

Originally published in the 2003 Spring issue of The CampLine.