In the Care of Other People’s Children, Part 1: Things Every Camp Should Start Doing Now

Diane Tyrrell, CCD, MA Ed
September 2019

Over the last 30 years, I have not only been a camp director and owner but have also worked in the role of providing professional risk management education within the camp, youth development, and education fields. My clients have included universities, municipalities, private schools, camps, recreation, and nonprofit organizations. In addition to writing, providing educational workshops, training camp staff, etc., I am often hired to evaluate policies and procedures, as well as advise and provide an expert opinion for insurance and legal professionals when accidents happen at camps. I am passionately committed to — and enjoy — my work in risk management education, because it helps camps do the important work of providing safe camp experiences. The work is far less enjoyable when camps fail to do so.

Reading about a fatality or permanent, life-altering injury that occurred to a child at a camp is heart-wrenching. While I try my best to maintain a level of objective professionalism, I confess that reading depositions from mothers who have lost their child at camp frequently brings me to tears; I often cannot help the interference of my own motherhood, imagining my sons suddenly lost to me while attending one of their many summer camp experiences. In this work, I also confess to becoming angry and frustrated — the majority of the fatalities, serious accidents, and injuries that occur are preventable.

As I shared prior, one of my passions within this industry is in educating camps in accident prevention. And so, based on decades of observing trends, and experience, I offer the following in hopes that you can learn from the mistakes of others and, as a result, I never have to read another camp-injury deposition again.

Make Risk Management an Ongoing Frontline Staff Activity

Those who offer camp experiences have a duty to vigilantly provide for the health, safety, and well-being of their campers, along with a responsibility to assure the experience is overwhelmingly positive. This specifically includes the management of risks, providing staff with appropriate qualifications, skills, and experience through staff training, as well as taking the appropriate actions and precautions to protect participants against injury.

Accidents and incidents involving campers most often occur in program and living areas — typically when under the supervision of frontline camp staff such as cabin counselors, program staff, and activity area supervisors. As such, risk management should be both an activity and a culture to be created throughout camp — managed at the front lines (where the action is), not just in the front office. This includes training staff for their role in risk management, as well as teaching critical decision-making skills. So, for example, do not just teach staff how to play games, but also how to select a safe location for play; how to ensure that the level of the activity is appropriate to the age, abilities, and physical condition of the campers; or how to determine if they should even be playing that particular game in the first place.

Strive to Meet Better Practices

There is no such thing as a “best practice” — because there will always be a better practice. What we consider today to be the best practice will soon be outdated and replaced. While some may balk at this concept, it is critical to recognize that what was once the “highest standard” is frequently surpassed by the new and improved. The reality today includes fast and frequent changes in technology and scientific research in areas that directly impact camps. One example is the ongoing research in helmet safety and chest impact injury protection that has resulted in new technology and new types of equipment utilized in various types of sports, such as football, baseball, go-karting, waterskiing, etc. Other advances impacting the camp industry in just the last couple of years include:

  • Changes to first aid and CPR/AED protocols
  • Equipment updates for various program activities
  • New requirements for concussion protocols in camps
  • Scientific research in lifeguarding practices and training
  • Changes in the content of various certification training courses

Changes to practices and standards, training requirements, laws, parent expectations, etc., are inevitable at camp.

The challenge is to stay on top of the better practices within the various industries that are applicable to the camp’s program, such as aquatics, equestrian, ropes courses, healthcare in camps, and so on. These practices are often determined by the regulatory, national, or professional association of the specific industry/activity, and camps must be quickly able to adapt to changes and implement new policies or procedures. In caring for other people’s children, it is the responsibility of the camp to ensure they hold themselves to meeting the higher standard and current “better practices.”

Annually Review Health and Emergency Care

Health and emergency care in camps should be a comprehensive, consistent, integrated system that includes not only the day-to-day care provided by professionals, such as the camp nurse, but also the protocols, policies, and emergency action plans for program and activity areas, camper living areas, off-site trips, and camp-provided transportation. Most often, first emergency response to incidents/accidents in camp is provided by frontline staff, so it is critical that the healthcare protocols they are trained to utilize are both current and consistent with the camp’s overarching healthcare policies and treatment procedures.

Many camps put great effort into the development and review of the healthcare policies and treatment protocols to be utilized by professional healthcare staff. However, that effort needs to extend beyond the healthcare center, including reviewing/updating information in staff manuals, program area operating procedures, healthcare guides, first aid kits, etc. The purpose of the review of these policies, procedures and plans is to ensure that:

  1. The camp’s healthcare policies and treatment procedures are consistently applied throughout camp — not just in the health center.
  2. The camp is using current, up-to-date care practices throughout camp.
  3. Healthcare and emergency response procedures are consistent within the scope of training, qualifications, and certifications of the staff who will be implementing.
  4. Each activity, program, area, etc., has an updated emergency action plan (EAP).
  5. No inconsistencies between EAPs and the camp’s standards of care.
  6. A comprehensive plan is in place for training staff for their roles in health and emergency care.

Many camps get into trouble when they update their camp’s overall healthcare policies and treatment procedures but fail to also update policies and emergency care within program or living areas, or fail to update care protocols to be consistent with how staff were trained and/or compatible with the emergency care equipment they have access to. Make it an annual practice to collect every policy, action plan, notebook, first-aid poster, staff manual, etc., throughout camp that has anything health and emergency care related from every program area, dining hall, cabin, camp van, health center, nook, and cranny for review.

Be Inclusive with Care

As much as efforts to be inclusive and serve everyone are to be commended and encouraged, the reality is that every camp cannot be everything to every prospective camper. And, while every child deserves the opportunity for a quality camp experience, a bad camp experience can be far worse than no camp experience. Unfortunately, a bad experience is often the outcome when a camp accepts campers with needs it isn’t truly ready and capable to handle. Camps need to make a serious, objective, critical assessment of their abilities to meet the needs of each camper they wish to accept — including such things as their ability to provide adequate (and often additional) staffing, special training required for staff, proximity to off-site emergency care, needs for on-site professional medical care, ability to adapt activities and/or program areas, and ensuring that facilities meet the special needs of potential clientele, such as climate control, accessibility, etc.

Camps should also implement essential eligibility criteria (EEC) to establish whether or not an individual can participate in an activity based on their ability to perform the basic functions of the activity. The goal of EEC is to give the camp and the (parent of the) potential participant the information needed to make an accurate, objective assessment when deciding if the individual’s abilities are a good fit for that activity. EEC requirements are not intended to be exclusionary and should not be seen as blocks to participation, but they should honestly identify the basic and fundamental elements of participation that are integrally tied to safety and risk management considerations.

Stay within the Scope of Training

The standards of care — as well as the expectations of parents/guardians — when youth are participating is that activities will be supervised by qualified individuals who have the appropriate ability, knowledge, skills, certifications, and experience to teach/supervise each of the activities offered. It is the camp’s responsibility to ensure that activities are conducted in a safe manner, and to require that staff conducting/supervising activities demonstrate personal responsibility, a professional level of competency, and an ability to promote safety — specifically for potentially hazardous activities.

Camps should never expect staff to work outside of their scope of training, knowledge, experience, or qualifications. A common example is the use of lifeguards in the supervision of watercraft activities when a lifeguard certification by itself is completely irrelevant in such supervision. (Most lifeguard certification courses do not include instruction in watercraft operation, rescue, or any skills in the safe supervision of watercraft activities, such as activity management, hazard recognition, or accident prevention strategies.) Staff certifications, qualifications, or experience should be specific to the activity being conducted, specific to the type of location/environment, and specific to the type of equipment being utilized. Just because an individual can do an activity themselves — like swim, ride, climb, drive, bike, paddle, shoot, etc. — does not also mean they have the knowledge or ability to instruct, supervise, recognize hazards, mitigate risks, or safely conduct an activity at the level expected when in the care of other people’s children.

This is also why just because someone was staff last summer in and of itself doesn’t make them qualified to be the supervisor this summer. Supervision is a critical operational standard, and supervisors must have specific training, education, or professional development relevant to the position, as well as competence specific to the activities conducted at a level far beyond cursory knowledge. When staff do not have the qualifications for their role at the time of hire, the camp must ensure that staff are trained and certified before assuming responsibilities.

Avoid the Trifecta

The key to accident prevention and risk management is to make sure your camp avoids:

  • Complacency: Just because something hasn’t happened in the past is no guarantee that it won’t in the future. Always expect and plan for the worst; complacency should never drive policy decisions. Don’t take shortcuts in staffing and training based on nothing other than the camp’s good luck in the past. Don’t allow staff to become lackadaisical about safety and supervision midsummer, and recognize that mid/end of season burnout can result in poor decision-making.
  • Because we have always done it that way: Just as experience and expertise vary in different organizations, so do methods and standards. It’s not uncommon for operating procedures to have been accepted on the basis of historical adherence. But in many cases, they should be reviewed and challenged. Ask why. Make sure every practice, policy, and procedure is current, relevant, consistent, etc. Don’t automatically accept that what has been done is what you should be doing.
  • We wrote our plan last year: Planning for the worst and then hoping for the best only works outside of camp. Risk management plans and activities should be a living, breathing practice, not just a once-an-accreditation event. Risk management in camps doesn’t end with writing a document.

Establish Policies Specific to Your Camp

Policies and procedures should be specific to your camp. While borrowing resources and researching how others operate their camps is common, camps shouldn’t just adopt policies or procedures based on how the camp down the road does it. Every camp is unique in some way — including those that are part of a larger agency or parent organization. Further, while camps may need to meet minimum operating standards established by accrediting bodies, local/state regulations, or insurance providers, they are always free to, and should, exceed those standards when it’s in the best interest of meeting the needs of the specific campers in your care. For example, staff-to-camper ratios — including lifeguard-to-swimmer ratios, activity supervisor-to-participant ratios, healthcare providers-to-camper ratios, etc. — should be established based on the specific needs of your camp’s clientele, the specific activities being conducted, the specific area/facility, specific equipment utilized, and the conditions, hazards, etc., specific to where they occur. Everything in your camp should be specific to your camp, from emergency action plans and healthcare policies to staff training plans and how each activity is conducted.

The Line between Growing People and the Health of Your Camp Business

The business of camp is about transforming the lives of people through the camp experience. However, there is a difference between how this transformation applies to the campers/customers and how it applies to staff. On one hand, there are opportunities for personal growth as part of the experience of working at the camp. However, it’s important to recognize the difference between the growth and development of campers and the growth and development of staff. At the end of the day, the expectation is that staff will function at the appropriate levels and working at camp is not a path to personal problem-solving for employees; it is a job.

Directors need to recognize there are going to be times when helping a staff member grow is an appropriate response, and other times when discipline or release is the appropriate response — especially in cases where a staff member persists in making poor decisions that may put campers at risk. Staff conduct that fails to establish or maintain an environment that supports the physical and/or emotional safety and well-being of campers, self, or other employees must be addressed immediately.

Plan for Dissemination, Training, and Practice

Even the greatest plans, policies, and procedures are useless if the only people who know about them are those who wrote the policy. Without proper communication, camp employers cannot reasonably expect staff to perform their job functions. While it is important for staff to understand everything that applies to their role, a lack of information and training can literally become a life-and-death issue when camp staff don’t know how to respond to emergencies. Have a written plan for how/when/where you will inform staff of your camp’s policies and procedures in the areas of health, safety, and risk management. As applicable, also have a camp-specific plan in place for the hands-on practice of emergency procedures with camp staff. Some examples include practicing emergency action plans for evacuation, severe weather, fire, active-shooter, near-drowning/drowning, missing camper, etc.

Supervise Supervisors

Some camp operators have a tendency to promote young staff to the ranks of supervisor before they are experienced, qualified, and mature enough to truly handle the responsibilities. This lack of readiness is often due, in part, to the developmental age of the brain in those under the age of 25, as the frontal lobes of the brain are not yet fully developed. The frontal lobes play an important role in higher psychological processes, like planning, decision-making, impulse control, understanding consequences of actions or behaviors, and reasoning. Good judgment isn’t something they are biologically ready to excel in.

Mature adults think with the prefrontal cortex, the brain’s rational part. This is the part of the brain that responds to situations with good judgment and an awareness of long-term consequences. Teens and young adults process information with the amygdala, the brain’s emotional part. As the adolescent brain cannot fully understand cause-effect relationships, they are not yet equipped to evaluate the consequences of actions or weigh information — such as risk — the same way adults do. Think of the brain like a computer: they can’t run the software without the proper hardware. As such, expecting a young adult staff member to recognize or respond to hazards, enforce rules, respond to interactions between staff/campers, and supervise the work of others (typically also teens or young adults) in a supervisory role is often unrealistic — and unfortunately can lead to serious errors in judgment and camper injuries.

Camps that want to hire young adults in supervisory roles must have a well-thought-out plan for training and ongoing supervision. Senior staff must plan to be physically present where the action is on a regular basis. Yes, it may look or feel like micromanaging because it is — and should be, at least until you are confident in their decision-making abilities. Training should go beyond simple duties to include risk management and emergency response, as well as the more difficult situations they may encounter. Cover:

  • Conflict
  • Confidentiality
  • Rules enforcement with campers and fellow staff
  • Their role in staff discipline
  • How to address conduct that undermines the relationships between staff (such as gossiping, bullying, cliques, etc.)
  • Maintaining respect for camp administration and/or business operations
  • Maintaining a supervisory relationship with staff-peers

The First Line of Defense: Being an ACA-Accredited Camp

ACA is the only independent accrediting organization reviewing camp operations in the country. ACA’s nationally recognized standards focus primarily on the health, safety, and risk management aspects of a camp’s operation. ACA’s accreditation is administered through a peer-review process. ACA collaborates with experts from the American Academy of Pediatrics, the American Red Cross, and other youth-serving agencies to assure that current practices at accredited camps reflect the most up-to-date, research-based standards in camp operation.

ACA standards establish guidelines for needed policies, procedures, and practices. Meeting ACA standards and gaining ACA accreditation means a camp has taken considerable health and safety steps and also meets industry-accepted and government-recognized standards for safeguarding individuals who attend.

For more information, visit the About ACA Accreditation web page.

Photo courtesy of URJ Crane Lake Camp, West Stockbridge, Massachusetts.

Diane Tyrrell, CCD, MA Ed, has over 25 years of professional experience working within the camp, youth development, and education fields with for-profit and nonprofit camps and organizations. Diane is the owner and director of Chef Camp, a residential culinary immersion program for teens, and CEO of Frog Pond Consulting, providing integrated solutions to help meet ever-changing marketplace challenges for universities, private schools, camps, recreational facilities, and nonprofit organizations. She can be reached at dianettyrrell@gmail.com.