Camp Crisis Management: Responding to New Challenges

by Will Evans

Over the past few years, the scope of crisis response plans for many camp programs has expanded as camps share specific crisis experiences and network with other industries, such as schools and law enforcement agencies, to find solutions. In the past, crisis response plans at camps focused on child abuse; drownings or other activity-related deaths; vehicle wrecks; and environmental disasters such as earthquakes, tornadoes, hurricanes, or fires. Today, crisis response plans cover additional concerns such as suicide threats, shootings, hostage taking, pollution and hazardous waste exposures, communicable disease outbreaks, food poisoning epidemics, and the possible sudden implementations of governmental restrictions (such as airport closings). A new level of crisis response planning is emerging in many industries as professionals reevaluate what can be reasonably anticipated and identify resources to help manage these risks.

Creating a Crisis Response Plan for Your Camp
How well could your camp adapt to meet the challenges of widespread grief or hysteria, panic-stricken children whose parents can’t pick them up at the end of the camp session, interrupted communications and probable delays in vendor deliveries, and a significant reduction in EMS personnel or other professional resources who could respond to your site? With the proper resources and planning, you can minimize many of the emotional and physical traumas that may occur during a crisis. Consider the following steps when creating a crisis-response plan for your camp.

Get the right people
The people you involve in your planning process will dramatically influence the scope of the crises and the planned options available to your staff. Key camp staff to include are the director, camp medical director, maintenance supervisor, and off-site trip leaders. Suggested outside resources include personnel from your state’s emergency management agency, the local rescue squad and sheriff’s department, child protective services, camp doctor, child psychologist, local insurance agent or company, high school principal, and a public relations advisor. Your staff know your camp, but may not be familiar with procedures and resources available to others outside your camp. By utilizing these people in the planning stages, all participating will have an opportunity to address many issues that could result in conflict or confusion during a real crisis.

For instance, when EMS is called in for mass casualty responses or hazardous waste spills, EMS procedures and protocols could conflict with your camp’s plans. It’s not that EMS crews don’t care about your camp’s reputation or your procedures for controlling the press. The priorities emphasized to them in their training are “protect yourselves” and “save lives.” The camp director needs to understand that the camp’s priorities and concerns in a crisis may not be the priorities and concerns of the people directly involved in the crisis. That does not mean that the camp director’s concerns are not important and should not be addressed! By working cooperatively with the various agencies, perhaps camp staff could be assigned to various roles. Don’t be surprised if others outside your camp program question the qualifications of those people that you want them to work with during a crisis.

Identify potential threats
Make a list of possible major threats to your camp, staff, or guests. Then start listing the people, resources, and activities that need to occur within specific time periods (such as the first twenty minutes, the first hour, etc). The crisis list should include:

  • Environmental threats — earthquakes, hurricanes, forest fires, dam collapses, and tornadoes.

  • Security threats — hostile parents or visitors, hostage situations, verbalized threats, and child abduction.

  • Health threats — intentional or unintentional food poisoning or water contamination, child abuse, communicable disease outbreaks, staff death, and group-wide emotional stress resulting from a catastrophic world event.

  • Off-site hazards — off-site trips, airports, nuclear power plants, and dangerous wildlife.

You may even want to consider evaluating a combination of crises such as a diabetic or anaphylactic medical emergency during a severe storm that has knocked down trees and power lines, making access to your camp hazardous or impossible.

Gather resources
Assemble reference resources, including building layouts and topographic maps of your site and the surrounding areas. You might also want to visit any off-site trip locations. Have the crisis response planners walk through the site and review the communications systems, medical equipment, maintenance equipment, and other resources such as camp vehicles that might be used.

Prepare for a Crisis
Can you really prepare for a crisis such as a tornado or earthquake? Absolutely. Knowing what equipment you have (chain saws, tractors, emergency generators) is simply the beginning. Here are a few ideas to consider:

  • Store a supply of trauma equipment and topographic maps of the area in a secondary location away from the health center.

  • Store at least two quarts of water for every person in five-gallon containers in different locations in case the power goes out for an extended period of time.

  • Stock at least three meals that do not require cooking.

  • Have a secondary source of power (emergency generator) either on site or available to power phones, water pumps, or other primary equipment.

  • Keep a battery-operated radio tuned to your emergency weather station.

  • Investigate new technologies such as lightning detection systems.

  • Determine which of your buildings is most suitable for shelter.

  • Determine suitable secondary shelter locations off-site should evacuation be required.

  • Determine primary and secondary locations for “crisis central” where you can manage the situation.

  • Post emergency numbers by the phones and have a charged cellular phone with emergency numbers programmed.

Craft a successful response
Two rules should come into play for decision making in the face of a crisis:

  1. Protect the people.

  2. Perform actions that demonstrate that your camp cares for those who are emotionally or physically injured even after they have departed.

One of the greatest obstacles to a successful response occurs when a leader becomes so emotionally involved he is unable to act quickly and appropriately. A timely response is important to the outcome. Consider and evaluate what factors could delay or impair your camp staff from responding to the crisis. Does the time of day, staff time off, demand on EMS, or the camp’s isolated location prevent or just delay a response? Rarely will anyone fault you for seeking more professional help than needed . . . but what kind of professional help does your camp need? Identify the availability and procedures to acquire resources such as search dogs, rescue divers, child psychologists, air flight medical/fire rescue, Center for Disease Control, medical doctors, animal control, electrical and gas repair specialists, sources for bulldozers and industrial machinery. These are just a few of the resources that could prove beneficial if contacted at an early stage.

Plan for a speedy recovery
Evaluate reentry and recovery opportunities available to your camp. It’s important to have plans in place for helping you, the campers, and your staff recover physically and emotionally from the crisis. Hiring a professional public relations firm will help reaffirm your camp’s strength and stability to the general public, parents, and campers. The firm can help your camp recover its image as well as identify opportunities and methods to tell the public what they can do to help in terms of donations, equipment, and other assistance.

Train by doing
The earlier your camp can identify a crisis situation, the sooner you and your staff can start acting. Consider how your staff will detect the onset of a crisis. Also, determine the factors that would make a staff member classify a situation as a crisis. These “triggers” to identifying a crisis could be used in staff training scenarios throughout the summer to reinforce the importance of constant awareness.

Crisis managers know that the key to successful staff training isn’t the length of time spent on the training, but the quality of the lessons communicated. The other important key to staff training is repetitive lessons. While there is value in discussing various scenarios that could arise, most of us learn best by doing. Assign your staff members to role-play a scripted scenario or two. Some roles they might play include neighbors posing as concerned parents, EMS personnel responding to and investigating the crisis, reporters pushing for a sensational story and immediate answers, and staff members who are overwhelmed emotionally or task-wise. Because staff members will be assigned many different responsibilities, recording the roleplay with a video camera will supply a visual illustration for later review. In your group discussion, concentrate on what worked and why — discuss the problems encountered and mistakes made during the scenario. You and the staff will likely identify resources (other people or equipment) that might prove helpful in the future.

Manage incoming and outgoing information
Lots of information accumulates during a crisis. Can the director or crisis manager handle all the incoming information, simultaneously delegating instructions and documenting what is occurring? Maybe, but why work that hard or risk losing important data? Assign a staff member to accompany you, record what is done and when, keep track of reports, and remind you of tasks that may be incomplete.

You also need to evaluate outgoing information. Your phone operator should have a script for responding to telephone inquiries regarding the crisis. The staff should know who the camp spokesperson is and direct all inquiries to him or her. Visitors or strangers should be escorted or at least wear visitor’s badges. Do you give campers access to phones or the Internet to let parents know they are okay? This practice seems harmless, but campers could communicate inaccurate information.

Write it down
There are two other aspects to information management that are important to remember. If a lawsuit develops, written documentation of what was done to prepare, as well as what went on during the crisis, could be crucial to your camp’s defense. Good documentation can also be used as a learning tool later.

Communicate your priorities
Not everyone has your perspective or understands your concerns, particularly outside resources. For example, asking your insurance company for legal consultation in developing a press release or parent information statement falls outside of insurance coverage, but it may be beneficial to both parties and it is a time-critical request.

What you consider to be an appropriate response may actually be minimal compared with what you “might have done.” The last thing most directors want to face is “armchair scrutiny” of their actions months down the line that reveal actions that could be interpreted as indifferent or uncaring. Keep asking your professional resources what else can be done or what others have done in similar situations. Your camp’s response will be examined in different ways by any number of groups — the media, parents, other camp directors, the public, and government agencies.

Make crises less traumatic
Lessons learned from past mistakes, as well as successes, help you to be better prepared today to handle a crisis in a professional manner. Developing a crisis response plan is a lot of work, but the process will help your camp provide safer programs, which can save lives, resources, and reputations.

Copyright Markel Corporation, used by permission.

 

Originally published in the 2002 March/April issue of Camping Magazine.

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