Tangles in the New Safety Net

Camps around the world have implemented emergency actions plans that never existed before. Terrorist attacks, tornadoes and armed assailants are no longer just splashy headlines. These crises are possible at summer camp. Or so we are told by insurers and companies who specialize in—you guessed it—crisis response. So add shooter drills, storm drills and regional disaster planning to fire drills and lost bather drills.

I’ve been a camp waterfront director since 1989, so I have a long history of safety consciousness. I wear my seatbelt in my car, my helmet on my bike and, of course, my life vest in any boat. Indeed, each summer for the past 15 years, I have bet my staff that if they ever catch me in an unmoored boat without a PFD, I’ll give them $1,000 cash (which they can choose to keep or donate to our camp’s scholarship fund). It’s happened once in 15 years.

Given my hearty advocacy of any practice or precaution that could keep staff and campers safe, it’s hard to imagine my objection to scatter plans, steel Quonset huts, mass texting or the widespread use of walkie-talkies. In fact, I have no objection to any of this equipment nor to routine practice. My concern is what we’re not talking about. And, more importantly, the campers we are not talking to.

The emergency action planning meetings I attended this summer mimicked the written safety audits I perused. Their focus was on the physical response to danger. Directors were given instructions on how to notify parents and staff; staff were given instructions on how to stay in communication with directors and where to take campers; and campers were given instructions on how to follow instructions from staff. In an emergency, everyone had a signal to listen for and a place to go. No plan included instructions on talking with children during or after a drill or emergency. I wonder what kind of anxiety we are brewing in campers by running shooter drills without discussing with them a world in which shooters attack children.

In the 50s and 60s, American public schools routinely ran “duck and cover” drills. I suppose the assumption was that youngsters were more likely to survive a Soviet nuclear bomb by hiding under their desks. Maybe it was just temporary protection from falling ceiling tiles. Whatever the case, those drills caused an entire generation to fear imminent “Commie” attacks. We did come dangerously close to nuclear war during the Cuban Missile Crisis, but that didn’t obviate the need for reassuring discussions about the general safety of schools.

On a staff training visit to Camp Laney for Boys this summer, I was inspecting the new tornado shelters with Owner/Director Rob Hammond. We walked inside the thick steel building and bolted the door closed behind us. To add a bit of context: I’ve been working with Rob and his staff for 15 seasons and he and I speak regularly and candidly about camp. We can’t quite read each other’s thoughts, but we did on that day. “Feels more like a bank vault than a friendly camp building,” he said. “Cold and kinda scary,” I added.

“I know what’s missing,” Rob said. “Something calming for the campers to do. We need cards, board games, magazines…maybe even music.” I agreed and added, “And we need to encourage your staff to talk with their campers during and after a drill. Find out what they were thinking and feeling. Ask them whether any of them has been in a natural disaster, urban emergency or school crisis before. I can only imagine that being in here might stir up some uncomfortable feelings.”

The young people we serve need to practice emergency action plans. They also need an opportunity to debrief the experience afterwards. Most importantly, they need staff who can speak honestly and openly with them about the relative safety of camp, the anxiety we all feel about possible danger and the reassurance we experience when we work to mitigate negative consequences. Practically speaking, that means adding a training component to your EAP focused on campers’ emotional experiences.

Next season, don’t drill without discussion.

Dr. Christopher Thurber serves on the faculty of Phillips Exeter Academy, a coeducational boarding high school. He is the father of two boys and author of the best-selling Summer Camp Handbook. In 2007, Chris co-founded Expert Online Training.