Five Under-Utilized Strategies to Use During a Camp Crisis

Five Under-Utilized Strategies to Use During a Camp Crisis

At each of our retreats for TSCS, we have a live-action role play crisis challenge* generously sponsored by our friends at CampMinder. To prepare for this experience, a TSCS leadership team member writes a narrative describing a high-stakes crisis that could plausibly unfold at any camp. Examples of these crises could be campers going missing on a field trip, controlled substances being stolen from the health center, or a staff “tradition” (aka hazing) that goes very, very wrong. All of these scenarios are complex, time-sensitive and have huge consequences.

The crisis challenge itself is a simulation where the participants divide themselves into teams and pretend they run a camp together. They are presented with a narrative describing a newly-unfolding crisis at their camp. Throughout the course of the experience, real-time information is released about the crisis. The teams must work together to come up with a plan of how they would respond if these events were happening in real life and present their plans to a panel of judges. Eventually, a team is named the winner and the challenge itself is debriefed.

As with any skill, the best way to get better at crisis response is to practice it. However, we never get to do that! Most of us learn about crisis management as we are actually handing real crises. But at the TSCS retreat, we practice in a low-stakes environment that feels high stakes, alongside of brilliant fellow camp directors with their own personal/professional experiences. A tremendous amount of learning occurs in this experiential environment.

I’ve conducted four crisis challenges and have learned a ton at each one. So, I wanted to share with you the top five underutilized tactics I have learned that are essential during any sort of camp emergency that unfolds over time:

STRATEGY 1: Assign a proxy to run the “day to day” of camp

So--some news comes your way about a camp problem. And you’re pretty sure it’s going to be a doozy. Right away, assign a fellow administrator (such as your program director) as your substitute to run the “normal” needs of camp, just as you would do if you were leaving on time-off. This person should be given complete trust to take care of all of the regular needs and be allowed (and capable of/confident enough) to make executive decisions. They should protect your time and energy.  They should also be given an appropriate response (“the party line”) to relay to anyone wondering where you are or what you are doing.

STRATEGY 2: From the beginning of the situation, keep a record

Lots of times, camp crises get complicated. And they get complicated quickly. With lots of players, moving pieces and details, don’t rely on your mid-July brain to remember it all. Grab a notebook or even use voice dictation to the “Notes” app on your smartphone to keep a record of everything you do and learn as you go. For conversations with key individuals, record the time of the conversation and write a quick summary of what was shared. Keep a log of incoming and outgoing phone calls. Note important other occurrences, such as arrival of emergency response or evidence uncovered. When applicable, take photos and utilize screen shots of things like social media posts or text messages. Although it seems like a pain to document as you go, it’s much less of a pain than documenting (and trying to remember everything) once it is all over. This is also one of the best ways to support yourself and your camp if there were later legal ramifications from the crisis as well as to keep information sorted as you make crucial decisions.

STRATEGY 3: Utilize outside, expert resources

You’re not in it alone. However, it’s never appropriate to post sensitive situational details to the Summer Camp Professionals Facebook Group! Here are some of the best ways that TSCS members have utilized outside resources during our simulations:

  • If your camp is an ACA camp, you have access to the crisis hotline. I’ve called this hotline a few times in the middle of the night and they have always been helpful. It’s one of the perks of your ACA membership and there’s no harm in using it. 

  • You can also use people in your personal/professional networks. When there was a virus outbreak at Camp Stomping Ground in their very first summer, Jack and Laura called a seasoned camp director they knew who had gone through the same thing the previous year. He gave them valuable insights and guidance that saved their session. Often camp directors who are part of TSCS who are going through a crisis connect with members of their TSCS cohort to learn from their past experiences, share resources (recently shared was a form letter about a measles diagnosis at a TSCS member’s day camp), or just have someone to talk with who “gets it”. 

  • Finally, there are lots of professionals out there who have way more experience than you might when some sort of crisis strikes your camp. Make sure you have the number for and a relationship with your camp’s legal counsel. Know your local law enforcement, fire chief and EMS crews. Keep a little list with the experts’ names at hand -- for instance, if I needed a psychologist I would call Dr. Chris Thurber in a heartbeat. Of course, you must respect confidentiality guidelines. But remember that there are lots of folks out there who know more about the type of crisis at hand than you do.

STRATEGY 4: Have an extra phone line

Crises can clog up your camp’s phone line. If you’re a small camp like the ones I have run, this can create a lot of problems where people can’t get through--both people related to the crisis and those not related to the crisis. Have a specific number that you can use as the crisis manager with voicemail set up. Consider making this a cell phone so you can text as well from a camp-owned number. This will keep things more organized for you and for your proxy (see #1), and prevent parental panic if they can’t get a line to the camp.

STRATEGY 5: Tell the parents (and other stakeholders) the truth, early and as you can

Not much to be said here, except that everything comes out in the wash. Always. In my opinion and experience, it’s better that you admit any mistakes from your end as quickly and truthfully as you can instead of hiding things and hoping that they never surface. But also run all of this by your legal counsel!

*We got this idea from the Ross School of Business at the University of Michigan where I received my MBA. Check out how they run crisis challenges

Want to talk about this with staff?

We did this as a “book club” kind of discussion with our TSCS members, and we’re sharing the write-up here! There are questions that stem from the blog and questions about crises in general. This is a great starter to talk crises with leadership teams.


Sarah Kurtz McKinnon

Sarah Kurtz McKinnon

Camp director, consultant and trainer. She's also one of the co-founders and co-facilitators of The Summer Camp Society! 



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