Summer Camps, Fire, and Emergency Communications: Six Lessons Learned During a Fire at Camp

Ari Polsky
July 2018
Wildfire close to camp

Fires are a potential hazard for camps located in wooded areas and urban areas alike. How camps respond and communicate to camp families and the community when a fire does occur can go a long way to alleviating any safety fears or panic, especially if a fire occurs while camp is in session.

Ramah in the Rockies experienced a fire on site while camp was in session last summer, and Camp Ramah in California and URJ Camp Newman (also in California) both experienced fires during retreat season but off-season for camp in 2017. Following are observations made and lessons learned from communication efforts during and after these events.

Author’s Note: I have worked at Ramah in the Rockies and Camp Ramah in California, and I observed both the Rockies’ and URJ Camp Newman’s experiences online. The lessons noted here are based on their experiences and communications, as well as my own with Ramah California.

One: Communicate Often — Even if You Have Nothing New to Say

In this day and age of 24/7 news coverage and social media updating, people expect information instantly. When a place that people care so much about, like summer camp, is threatened or experiencing a tough time, the camp community wants reassurance that the place they love is still all right. So put out updates often, even if you don’t have new information. You can say the same thing differently and change your language, or even just, “No new information at this time; we will update you when we have more information.”

If a long time goes by between updates, people might misinterpret online data or get suspicious. We experienced this challenge specifically after Shabbat while we were off-line. Someone went on social media immediately after, read something that was contrary to our prior updates, and shared it with their entire network. Posting often ensures that it shows up in people’s newsfeeds and helps control the message. If you anticipate circumstances that could keep you from updating at regular intervals (such as religious observance or other interruptions), let your audience know.

Ramah in the Rockies made sure to use available technologies by livestreaming their community in song and prayer after evacuating. Seeing their kids engaged in this way gave parents who were afar peace of mind and showed that the camp community can be recreated outside the mountains, streams, hills, and valleys of a remote camp.

Two: Use Other News Sources — Twitter, Snapchat, Other Social Media, and Police Scanners

We live in a world where everyone has the ability to broadcast what they see and think. Some of the best reports we received about what was happening in Ojai, California, during the fire came from people who were on the ground and updating Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. On Snapchat, you can check a map of public posts in a designated area; we found several images and video clips from our area this way.

The town of Ojai also has a Community Forum on Facebook, where we saw regular updates from people all over town. On the forum we connected with an Ojai resident who was working near camp and had not evacuated. She was able to give us updates from the local police scanners and from being on the ground nearby. We also listened to the Ventura County Fire Department scanner online for updates in the area as the fire raged.

Three: Have Everything Ready to Go — and Hope You Don’t Need It

The morning before we found out we were in direct fire danger, our team had compiled a list of things we wanted to take from camp if we needed to evacuate. Items ranged from sentimental/historic camp items (photos, hard drives) to religious items (Torahs, etc.), and programmatic and other important work documents. With input from several staff and stakeholders, we had the list ready to go, and it now lives as a permanent file in the event of evacuation.

Additionally, we made a “worst case scenario packet” — a press release, quote from the executive director, camper care resources (see section Five), a letter to our community, and a fund-raising page — which we were fully prepared to use if needed. We were incredibly grateful that we did not have to use these resources, but they were important to make ahead of time and have ready. The executive director, the director of finance and administration, and the associate director all participated in writing the letter to our community in consultation with the vice president of media relations and strategy at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. By having this letter preprepared, we could be deliberate about its message rather than hastily writing something while emotions and adrenaline were high. (A special shout-out goes to URJ Camp Newman, which inspired some of the specific text of our templates.)

Long story short: Prepare templates for communicating potentially likely scenarios.

Four: It Takes a Village

Summer camp is a bubble, an intentionally built community, and there are usually many in the community who love and care about the magic that is the camp experience. Use them. Whether it’s your board, your communal leaders (in our case, partner rabbis), alumni, camp movement colleagues, donors, or other stakeholders, keep them in the loop and let them be your champions. When we have made major policy shifts, we have reached out to our board of directors and distributed talking points and an explanation, asking them to represent our interests in the community in case they get any questions. As it became clear to us that we could have an increased likelihood of damage, we gave the rabbis in our area a heads up and told them we would let them know what ways (nonfinancial) they and their synagogues could support us if it became necessary. Camp builds community. Don’t be afraid to ask that community to help you out.

Similarly, in our case, as the fire was just beginning and not yet an imminent threat, we relied on our year-round team and office staff to help us stay on message. We circulated a list of talking points for everyone to keep on their desk should they receive any questions. Especially important was the directive that all media inquiries were to be referred to the executive director. (Lesson Four and a Half: Have a designated media contact.)

Five: Don’t Forget Camper Care — Help Kids Process / Grieve / Express

This is something that URJ Camp Newman did especially well: They created a document of resources and shared this with their families via Facebook and email. The resources included expert-written articles as well as reflections written by the camp staff and community on processing loss.

Yes, camp is a special and magical place, but it is more than that: Camp is the physical manifestation of people’s memories. These places are special because of the community, the spirit, and the memories. The physical land is what people tie most to these feelings, and the idea of losing camp creates very real feelings of loss.

At Ramah California, our campers posted in a very organic manner, sharing their prayers and thoughts for camp by posting their favorite camp photos on Instagram and Snapchat. This allowed them to see they were not alone in their feelings: All of their counselors and friends were posting the same sentiments.

Six: Create Templates and Protocols

A couple of summers back, Ramah California created an “Incident Command Playbook,” where we stored templates for emails on a wide variety of topics, such as:

  • bed bugs
  • lice
  • counselor being dismissed
  • camper behavior agreements
  • bears near camp

We recently digitized this playbook into an indexed Google Doc so it can be accessed from anywhere and searched. This allows us to not have to reinvent the wheel for emails, but rather to adapt preexisting emails. (By the way, the American Camp Association also has a number of email examples for things like lice and bed bugs.)

When I worked at Ramah in the Rockies, thunderstorms were frequent, and every so often a storm would knock out the Internet or phones temporarily. (We eventually arranged for a backup satellite communications system.) To avoid a situation where we might be incommunicado, we wrote an emergency communications document that included directions to update Facebook and the website, and pre-written templates (see Lesson Three) for potentially likely scenarios. Two people who were off-site, one in New York and one in Denver, had access to this and had been trained in the protocol. These directions came into play last summer when Ramah in the Rockies experienced a building fire and asked their off-site people to activate the protocol.

At the end of the day, all you can do is plan. Things will happen outside your control, and you should expect the unexpected. By planning thoroughly and utilizing all available resources, these crises might be just a little less stressful to manage.

This entire experience was a true team effort, and I am happy to have had an incredible group of coworkers and friends at Camp Ramah in California who were all partners in overcoming this challenge. We are beyond grateful to the various first responder and firefighter personnel who protected Camp Ramah and the town of Ojai, and our hearts go out to all those who suffered loss in this fire. A huge thank you to Rachel Dubowe of URJ Camp Newman for sharing camp materials around the fire with me as Ramah California prepared for the Thomas Fire. And thank you to Lisa Holstein of Ramah in the Rockies for being the coolest cucumber under pressure and reminding me to use the resources available.


Photo courtesy of Camp Ramah in California, Ojai, California.

Ari Polsky is a marketing and communications associate for Camp Ramah in California.