'Cultivating Camp Safety Practices' by Sarah Kelty

Seven years of professional rescuer lifeguarding, CPR, and first aid training did not prepare me for the feeling of having a child’s life in my hands. I was a counselor at a summer camp, located on a 70-mile long lake, where I had spent all of my summers, first as a camper, and then later as a staff member.

On one particularly hot summer session, the campers, with the guidance of the counselors, planned a kayaking trip that involved paddling 50 miles over the course of 3-4 days. This seemed ambitious, but many of the campers were strong paddlers and had attended camp for several years. Ultimately, the counselors consented, and arrangements were made for the kayaking trek. During the second day of the trip, the heat index rose to 105 degrees Fahrenheit, and an unexpected headwind slowed our progress down the lake significantly. Meanwhile, one of the campers, whose homesickness had intensified since the beginning of the trip, threw her paddle into the lake and refused to go any farther. Inconsolable, we decided to take turns towing her to the next landing spot, where we could separate her from the group, comfort her, and determine whether she was willing to continue or needed to be picked up at a nearby access point.

Towing the camper took its toll on us in the strong winds and high heat, and soon the counselors were nearly as exhausted as the campers. We decided that, at the landing point, we would reassess the situation and potentially shorten the trip, due to the extreme weather conditions. As soon as we landed on shore, one the other campers -- Vanessa (name changed for confidentiality) -- collapsed on the ground. Immediately, I assessed the situation and started the camp’s emergency action plan. Another counselor moved the rest of the campers into the water to cool off and remove them from the scene, while a third assisted me, and the fourth found her health information and began recording the incident. I had reviewed Vanessa’s medical information before she arrived at camp, and remembered that she had experienced one asthma attack as a child. Since then, she had taken a daily pill as a preventative measure, but the asthma occurrence was so rare that she was not required to bring an emergency inhaler to camp. As she sat upright on the ground, wheezing and out of breath, I realized that the overexertion from the day and a half of kayaking had exacerbated what was otherwise a benign asthma condition.

As we waited for emergency services to arrive, I tried to calm Vanessa and encourage long, deep breathing. It wasn’t until she lost consciousness and stopped breathing that my terror and panic started to set in. Though it was only for a moment, my body snapped into CPR mode, which gratefully came as muscle memory after years of annual recertification. Just as I began to prepare for resuscitation, the horrifying, fleeting thought flashed through my mind: What if I can’t resuscitate her? I had always taken the counselor role seriously, imagining in my lifeguarding courses that I was a parent sending my child to camp -- how precious those lives were, and how much responsibility they bestowed to me to safeguard their lives. But the mental exercise could not substitute the real fear stemming from an actual emergency.

The moment of dread was over in a matter of seconds, but it felt like years. Vanessa resumed breathing again almost immediately, and a few seconds later she opened her eyes. We gave her some warm water to relax her bronchial tubes, and after several minutes, she had normal color and complexion to her skin and was able to talk. Smiling, she asked us, “What happened?”

A month later, I was describing the event to a close friend, whose sister was a camper during the kayaking trip and friends with Vanessa. She told me that none of the campers had realized the gravity of the situation, and they left camp talking about the amazing trip they had. While grateful that we had successfully managed the scene to the point where even Vanessa herself did not know she had been at the center of an emergency situation, I realized that the counselors and camp management had overlooked certain safety factors that could have cost Vanessa her life. Knowing about Vanessa’s preexisting condition, we should have made a more detailed risk management plan, and been quicker to adjust the trip destination when environmental factors changed. Though the majority of the campers were committed a certain destination point, we should have more accurately considered the ability and emotional state of the entire group -- for example, the homesick camper whose homesickness had impacted her participation. Finally, the camp medical staff should have required an emergency inhaler, even though Vanessa’s doctor did not recommend it, because she was enrolled in an advanced kayaking session that demanded high physical activity. Even though the risk was small, the severity of its occurrence should have commanded more preparation and closer surveillance.

Two years later, I began working at a camp in another state as the Assistant Director/Waterfront Director. The scare of Vanessa’s asthma attack propelled me to a higher level of safety consciousness, which I integrated into staff training. These combined experienced have shaped my recommendations for any camp or parent in evaluating their safety practices:

  1. What is the camp’s safety standards? Third party accrediting agencies, like the American Camping Association (ACA), can be excellent indicators of their safety performance. If they are not certified, what is their risk management plan?
  2. How often does the camp hold in-service trainings and/or drills? Have staff had practice enacting emergency scenarios (e.g. missing camper, waterfront emergency, natural disaster, etc.)? Is there a clear chain of command in a variety of hypothetical situations? Is safety equipment (e.g. backboards, lifeguard tubes, walkie-talkies, etc.) up-to-date and functional?
  3. Is there an adequate staff-to-camper ratio? Understaffed camps could be at a higher risk for staff burnout and accidents. Do staff get adequate breaks and time to refresh? Do lifeguards switch their posts frequently enough, especially on hot days?
  4. What are the camp’s procedures for managing bullying, homesickness, and other forms of emotional safety?
  5. How does the camp prioritize the wellbeing of the campers and staff? Is there an on-site nurse or doctor? Are the meals nutritionally adequate? Does the kitchen meet health code? Do staff ensure campers practice safe habits, such as applying sunscreen, wearing proper attire, and staying hydrated?
  6. How is weather monitored, and what is the camp policy about extreme weather conditions?

These are just a few considerations that could help camps operate in the safest possible manner. No activity is completely free of risk, but certain practices can significantly increase accident prevention and response. Above all else, constant and continual revision of camp safety policies and trainings can ensure that campers, like Vanessa, are cared for in the most responsible manner possible.