A Camp Safety Guide for Parents: What Questions To Ask Before Sending Your Child To Camp

by Robert and Jodi Scheinfeld

In July 1998, Robert and Jodi Scheinfeld lost their oldest child Jeremy (then age 10) at a summer sleep-away camp. Fully clothed, and while playing a game, Jeremy drowned after being taken by his counselors into a river outside the camp grounds. Several campers almost lost their lives that day but fortunately, unlike Jeremy, they survived.

Our Objectives

     We offer the following guidelines to parents in an attempt to raise awareness regarding safety at summer camps. Because we believe that the question "Will my child be safe at camp?" is the single most important question in considering whether or not to send a child to a particular camp, we think parents may want to take a more active role in evaluating camp safety. We also think that by doing so, camps will take greater precautions.

     We realize, of course, that the American Camping Association (ACA) provides accreditation to camps for meeting certain industry standards, and that many states also require that certain safety and health conditions be met prior to the issuance of a permit to operate a summer camp. But we provide the following check list from a parents-only perspective, and we do so in a way which we believe would substantially improve the camp safety environment without sacrificing the camping experience.

     Although the following cannot guarantee a child's safety, we hope that it will enable parents to make a more informed decision concerning the camp to which they will entrust their child, and that it will work to reduce the risks in camping and raise the consciousness of the camping industry.

     We both still strongly believe in camping, as do our five children, all of whom have continued to benefit from the unique camp experience. Safety, however, has been and remains our number one priority, and we believe it should be yours as well.

Our Guidelines

  1. Please don't take for granted that a camp is safe -- even if you went there or work there, or your child went there last summer. We believe that safety standards can always be re-evaluated, and that just because a camp may have been incident-free last summer does not mean it will be next summer. It seems best to fight complacency and to generate awareness by asking tough questions about safety.

  2. Is the camp ACA-accredited? Although accreditation does not assure safety, and some states, such as New York, have more rigorous safety requirements, accreditation is a very good place to start. The ACA evaluates many industry standards concerning safety, health, program and camp operations, and it does provide helpful operational and educational support to over 2,200 camps.

  3. Does the camp use the ACA's 1999 videotape (or it's 2009 Ten Year Anniversary DVD) entitled "Who Will Care When I'm Not There? A Leader's Guide." This video, DVD, and accompanying counselor orientation materials were dedicated to Jeremy's memory and provide a powerful tool for camps to use in alerting staff to"Think Safety First" and to fully understand the importance of their role in taking care of your children. Please ask about it.

  4. Please know that there are state regulations governing the camp's operation. Generally, the permit-issuing official inspects the camp to ascertain compliance with the regulations, issues various reports, and may levy fines for violations. The reports, including a "Children's Camp Inspection Report," and a "Bathing Beach Inspection Report," identify many safety categories which the Health Department is supposed to check, including requirements for waterfront operations and waterfront personnel, and potentially dangerous activities including zip-lines, high wire apparatuses, or climbing walls. You may want to check these reports, as well as other records documenting prior violations or complaints, to determine the camp's history of code compliance.

  5. Please know that not all "Staff Training" or "Counselor Orientation" programs are the same. To understand what the counselors are taught, and by whom, you may want to see the training curriculum outline and all training materials. Is there a process to document training attendance? Is there a test that counselors need to pass? Is there a document counselors must sign affirming that they understand and will abide by all safety rules and procedures?

  6. Please understand that your child's safety and well-being directly depends on the type of counselors the camp hires. After all, the counselors are the individuals living and eating with, and supervising, your child 24 hours a day. You may inquire about the camp's screening process. Does it gather and scrutinize hiring data, including biographical backgrounds (and ages), swimming, driving and criminal records, and prior employment histories (for example, has a counselor previously been fired elsewhere)? You may also want to know what percentage of the counselors are teachers and/or parents, and what percentage possess a current cardiopulmonary resuscitation (CPR) certificate and/or are trained in first aid? Will any be with your child?

  7. Please ask about the camp's supervision of water-related activities. For instance, do the camp's aquatics directors have previous waterfront experience? How many seasons? Are there water safety or progressive swimming instructors (not just lifeguards) present to properly assess the swimming ability of each camper (required in New York)? How many water safety instructors and/or lifeguards are there? Are the lifeguards trained for the type of bathing facility (i.e., pool, lake, beach) at the camp? Do they employ a buddy-system and how many guards do they use per 25 bathers (e.g., perferably more than one)?

  8. Please review the camp's "Program" or "Activity" schedule. Prior to the start of every summer, the program director typically plans out a program or activity schedule, which you may want to review. You can check if there are any activities you don't understand or games you haven't heard of. You may want to know whether there are out-of-camp hikes or trips and whether these activities involve entry into a body of water. Some camps prohibit any entry into water off camp property, or allow it only if proper-fitting life jackets are worn.

  9. For all out-of-camp trips, particularly hikes and excursions, please see whether there exists a specific protocol. You may want to ensure that the camp requires (a) a trip leader qualified in First Aid training and CPR; (b) counselors to bring with them communication devices; (c) the counselor-in-charge to be over a certain age; (d) a buddy system to be employed; (e) a lost camper plan to be followed; and (f) a parental permission slip to be signed.

  10. For trips involving partial or total immersion in a body of water, please see whether there exists any special protocol. You may want to ensure that the camp allows entry into a body of water (such as a pond, lake, stream or river) only where a government permit has been issued -- insuring the availability at the site of lifesaving and safety equipment, float lines and qualified lifeguards trained for rescue in the type of water to be entered. You may also want to ensure that only bathing attire is worn.

  11. Eco-friendly materials should be used. Ask the camp about the chemicals it uses for cleaning the cabins, and what types of household or outdoor maintenance/agricultural pesticides it uses. If pesticides are used, what restrictions does the camp employ (e.g., are they used in the cabins, and/or in close proximity to the cabins, while camp is in session; and where are toxic materials stored)?

  12. Please be aware that the camp's "Written Plan" for safety is available for your review. In New York, in order to receive a permit to operate a children's camp, the camp operator is required to develop and implement a written safety plan and submit it for approval to the Health Department of the county in which the camp is located.

    The Written Plan must accurately describe: (a) staff job descriptions and a procedure for verifying staff qualifications; (b) facility operation and maintenance; (c) fire safety protocol; (d) protocol for medical care (you may want to ask how emergencies are handled, e.g., where is the nearest hospital?); (e) general and activity specific safety requirements, including supervision of campers; (f) staff training; and (g) camper orientation. The plan must be kept on file at the camp. Consider asking for an electronic copy.

  13. Does the camp have Epi-pens and Automated External Defibrillators (AEDs) on site? Epi-pens and AEDs save lives and it would be helpful to insure that the camp has them on the premises, and employs staff members trained to use them.

  14. Please ask about vehicle use and protocols. Are vehicles allowed on campus? Near the cabins? Who is responsible for driving campers out of camp? How old are the drivers and are they required to pass special tests? Do the drivers require seatbelts to be fastened? Are safety rules in place?

  15. Are the cabins safe? Are safety rails used for the top bed of a bunk bed? How spaced apart are the beds? Are the bunks checked pre-season for hazards inside and out?

  16. Please know that not all camps discipline staff in the same manner. You may want to learn the camp's staff discipline policies and ask certain questions: (a) does it enforce a written policy of zero tolerance for drug use or alcohol abuse (are counselors fired after first time drug use/alcohol abuse is discovered)?; (b) does it enforce a written staff curfew and, if so, what time?; and (c) has it fired counselors before and why?

  17. Please be aware that there may have been prior deaths or serious injuries at the camp. You may want to learn what happened and what the camp has done in response.

Lastly, you may want to check the following additional websites:

The ACA's Website
New York State Department of Health's Website

Copyright © 1998, 2000, 2006, 2011