Off-Season Risk Management
No one would argue that every camp doesn't need to have an inclusive insurance policy to guard against all kinds of catastrophe. This is a given.
What isn't a given is the infinite risk factors that exist beyond what an insurance policy or state agency requires to mitigate that risk.
So how do you take effective steps to cover your bases, and ensure a happy and accident-free camp season? The overwhelming response to this question, answered by three successful camp directors we spoke to, is staff.
"We ask counselors very elaborate two- or three-page exit surveys, which talk about things we need to know -- orientation and the like -- but also, 'When did you feel comfortable?' In terms of risk management that's very important, because you can't have counselors feeling uncomfortable six weeks into camp," says Marc Katz, owner of Long Lake Camp for the Arts, Long Lake, N.Y. "A counselor who's unhappy may not be doing their job and protecting your kids' safety, so we spend a lot of time trying to satisfy our staff."
As Katz points out, counselors and staff need to be much more than mere employees. They need to feel ownership for the children who attend the camp, and have a parent's-eye view.
"Whether the top bunk has bed rails or not is not as important as a counselor looking at the kids in the morning and seeing who rolled around and thrashed their sheets and who slept without moving -- which kids should not be in the top bunk in the first place," says Blake Smith of Camp La Junta in La Junta, Texas.
"That should be mixed with the personal follow-up we have with the parents; if mom and dad tell us their kids shouldn't be swimming or shouldn't be on the top bunk, then we should do what they tell us to do. There's more apt to be liability exposure than if there's just an accident."
Smith goes onto say that his camp invests a lot of time training its counselors to look at things from not only a liability standpoint, but through the perspective of both the child and the parent.
Smith says that you can't necessarily screen for common sense, so his supervisory staff is always keeping a watchful eye out and making sure to positively reinforce good judgement while calling bad judgement onto the carpet.
Knowing what would make a parent nervous is great, but also knowing what kids see as excitement and challenge, rather than risk, rounds out the picture.
It's great to have signs down by the waterfront warning kids not to swim without supervision, but kids are not apt to slow down and read the sign when clear blue water beckons.
Joey Waldman, director of Camp Blue Ridge in Mountain City, Ga., utilizes video to help keep a close eye on his camp. No, he doesn't have security cameras posted all around camp like some kind of master spy (shaken, not stirred).
What Waldman does have is a team of staff armed with digital and film video cameras recording camp life, primarily as a season-end video yearbook for the kids. However, this camper perk has yielded an unforeseen benefit.
"Though my wife and I pride ourselves on being everywhere at all times, realistically we can't. I just scanned 33 videos of camp -- because we put our digital cameras out there for marketing purposes, yet it gives me a chance to really see every day during the summer what's going on out there," says Waldman. "Now I get to see other things, like the ski, horseback and golf programs that are off-campus. We can note those things we see and make corrections for next year."
It Takes a Village
Waldman also keeps a close eye on his facilities, most importantly the cabins and village where the kids spend most of their time.
"You lose more children because of unhealthy, unclean, unkempt conditions in the cabin and villages than anything else in camp," says Waldman. "As the camp is running we do, literally, an hour-by-hour, day-by-day review and inspection of our risk management policies and procedures."
Waldman says he has a three-prong procedure that begins just before the camp season, from April to June. They visit the site on several occasions, evaluate the risks and quickly get moving on the fixes.
After the summer's over they have a general meeting with facility managers, caretakers and maintenance people and start preparing for the next season, beyond the normal winterizing, as early as October.
"Cabin-wise, a lot of times you don't hear complaints until November or December, like tile in the bathrooms where a maintenance form was not filled out because a 21-year-old counselor would say, 'Hey. I can live with this.' Whereas a parent would say, "I don't want my child living with that,'" says Waldman.
Certainly you'll never find everything, whether it be inattentive staff, a missing bathroom tile, a motor on your ski boat that needs repair, or hidden obstacles in the water.
What you can do is instill the importance of keeping a watchful and wise eye on the camp and its activities in your staff. After all, they're often the only eyes you have during the camp season.