Rapid Parental Notification for Summer Camps


Rapid Parental Notification for Summer Camps by Nancy LaPook Diamond

January/February, 2005

In Apri1 1999, the United States suffered its single most tragic episode of school violence at Columbine High School in Littleton, Colorado. This same type of horrific event has been replicated at multiple schools throughout our country since then. These episodes as well as the September 11, 2001, terrorist attacks on our homeland and the continued threat of terrorism have shaken the sense of safety and security felt by the citizens in our great country.

There is a new urgency across our land to ensure that critical incident plans, communication plans, and parental re-unification plans are in place at all institutions responsible for the safety of America’s children. The u.s. courts have stated that preparation for disasters is now a duty and expectation of those acting in loco parentis and no longer will those responsible for a child’s well-being be protected if they “keep their heads in the sand.” Camp directors are not exempt from these expectations.

Camps face unique challenges preparing for and responding to critical incidents and unplanned schedule changes. Like most emergency scenarios, effective communication is critical, and the camp community has the added challenge of providing parents with timely and accurate information about their child. Preferably, this information will be provided on a non-preferential basis to all parents at the same time and not based on the first letter of the child’s last name.

One of the most common barriers to effective planning and response is the perceived inability to rapidly communicate with parents. Worded another way, most critical incident plans are formed around the obsolete assumption that it is impractical or impossible to reliably contact parents during a critical incident.

For example, many directors will choose to stay on the camp grounds rather than evacuate, even when evacuation is the safest course of action. In their judgment, there is a greater risk of keeping the children in a marginally secure facility than having parents arrive to an abandoned facility without notice. Knowing that every parent will be contacted immediately gives the director more flexibility to respond to each situation and can reduce the lead time in closing by several hours or more. A quality, rapid-communication service should be able to contact a minimum of four thousand phone numbers per minute utilizing today’s technology.

As public and private schools adopt rapid notification and it becomes the standard, parents are beginning to expect similar capabilities from the summer camp their children attend.

Parent Communication Is Different

Several factors make parental communication different from other types of emergency communication, such as police, fire, or ambulance:

  1. Parent Support. The first difference between camp-parent communication and other communication is the unique relationship to one another. Although the child attends the camp, the customer is the parent. Especially in the early years, a parent’s judgment of the camp is often based on his or her observations and the communication from the directors. In most cases, the parent has many other competitive options from which to choose and is entrusting his or her child’s safety and welfare to the camp.
  2. Dynamic Contact Number Changes. In contrast to businesses, whose phone numbers rarely change, parents’ home, cell, and other numbers can change regularly. The high volume of these changes can severely reduce any emergency communication system s effectiveness. When parents know that they will be contacted using a reliable, high technology solution, they tend to keep their contact information more accurate.
  3. Receiving Device Variations. Parents have a multitude of means to receive information such as home phone, answering machines, home phone voice mail services, cell phones, cell phone voice mails, forwarding services, pagers, voice messaging, text messaging, or even Blackberries. An efficient communication system, able to reach all types of technologies, is essential in ensuring that all of these devices are contacted simultaneously in order to ensure the likelihood of positive contact.
  4. The Parent Communication Paradox. Unlike other emergency communication processes, there is no “chain of command” or policy to prioritize which parents to contact first, under what conditions, and by what method. Timely and precise delivery of accurate information that is relevant to the parent is critical. The paradox is that every parent and guardian expects that he or she will be treated equally, as the first priority. The paradox can be even more challenging given that the primary emergency contact can vary, literally by the minute, within a family. For example, one morning the mother may be inaccessible because of a meeting out of town, making the father the primary contact, and his work phone and cell phone the primary emergency number. That afternoon, she returns and her cell phone becomes the primary emergency contact number until 3 p.m., when the grandmother arrives at the house and the home phone is the primary emergency contact number. Camps have a unique challenge in that often the parents may be out of town, vacationing, while their children are at camp, with yet another phone number as their emergency contact.
  5. Passive Restraint. Another unique challenge to camp-parent communication during a critical incident is the parent’s mindset. During a critical incident, planners and responders are performing tasks for which they have trained and prepared. Accustomed to the lead role in ensuring their child’s safety, the parents are relegated helplessly to the sidelines while their child may be in danger. In other words, while everyone around them is actively engaged, the parents are asked to remain passive and to stay ,out of the way. The more information they receive, the more apt they are to cooperate with the camp’s instructions during the event, which reduces stress and anxiety for the parents and reassures them of the professionalism of the camp administration.

These factors could lead to a highly visible communication failure, which is unacceptable since the camp’s success depends on parental support.

What is a Crisis?

A “crisis” by definition is an event that presents an immediate danger to a population or individual (e.g., armed intruder, fire) or an event that negatively impacts the operation of a camp ( e.g., flood, gas leak, power outage). A rapid communication system providing a clear, concise, accurate, and informative message minimizes the chaos that usually occurs during these types of incidents. Parents are advised in minutes after an incident about the magnitude of the incident, what emergency responders are doing, and most importantly how to reunite with their children. From the emergency responders’ point of view, informing parents immediately allows them to respond to the situation without interference or “help.” Chaos is routinely the result of a lack of information or inaccurate information being distributed.

Some examples of camp occurrences in which a rapid notification to parents is crucial would include:

  • evacuations/relocations
  • accidents
  • deaths
  • medical emergencies (outbreaks)
  • rumor control
  • major threats
  • terrorist warning, threat, or attack
  • inclement weather
  • bus delays
  • routine camp announcements

Notification of parents regarding these types of occurrences allows for clear, ac- curate information being provided before the “rumor mill” blows the situation out of proportion. This permits camp directors to inform parents that they are aware of the situation, that it is under control and being dealt with by law enforcement officials and/or camp policies, and that campers were/are safe. Additionally, it prevents the camp office from being disrupted because of phones ringing off the hook and from having to call each family contact individually.

Time is of the Essence

During a crisis, time is of the essence. The overwhelming task of placing hundreds, or even thousands, of calls manually, while receiving numerous incoming calls, is clearly insurmountable and consequently delays the delivery of potentially life-saving information or instruction. With the ability to perform both complex emergency and routine call-outs, high-speed notification assists camps to better handle the growing communications demands surrounding such crises.

Accuracy, perhaps even more so than speed, is essential to successful communication during all types of situations. Statistics reveal the limitations of manual notification procedures, especially for large-scale situations and, more importantly, the extremely high risk of failure.

The proven model of rapid emergency – call systems is located in every town in America-the Emergency 911 Centers. These centers are “live” 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and are manned by trained emergency personnel to ensure that the needs of the caller are met, especially in an emergency situation. The same should be required of your rapid communication vendor. Do not rely on the “blind faith” of a computer-based system. “Live call centers” are there to immediately ensure that the messages are being delivered.

One of the most critical components of managing a camp is the ability to assure the safety of campers and create open lines of communication with parents. Every camp, no matter how large or small, should consider its ability to communicate instantly with parents in case of an emergency. While emergency pages on Web sites are effective to communicate certain messages and in- formation, one must realize that parents are not online 24/7 and may not learn of the message in a timely matter. Instituting an emergency notification system will allow that message to be communicated efficiently and quickly.