Vacation Bible School and Summer Camp Preparedness

Tips to Prevent Potential Injuries, Accidents and Losses

By Guy Russ

It happens every year, just before summer camp or vacation Bible school. Some kids develop a case of the “what ifs.”

What if there are spiders? What if I get poison ivy? What if it rains every day?

Experienced camp directors and conference center managers are prepared. They also know that the real camp spoilers are far more troubling than a few rainy days.

By the time camp rolls around, they’ve evaluated safety and property risks and developed risk management practices and procedures for camp counselors and staff.

First aid kits? CPR staff training? Emergency response procedures? Medical history forms? Safety protocols for each activity?

You can bet that safety will be top-of-mind for campers’ parents and guardians, too — and that they’ll have high expectations for their children’s well-being.

If their child is injured, or your organization fails to protect them in some way, many won’t think twice before litigating.

As the leader of an expert team that analyzes reams of accident claims and casualty reports, I’m all too familiar with the perils that cast clouds over the best summer camps — and over their sponsoring communities.

From tragic drownings to fireworks burns, staff abuse to lost hikers, the list of accidents, injuries and six-figure lawsuits is truly mind-boggling. And more than a little unsettling.

Especially if the buck — and the blame — stops with you.

Because the summer camp experience often entails busloads of excited kids away from home, youthful staff, adventurous activities and 24-hour exposure to the elements, it’s easy to imagine how things could go wrong.

The silver lining? With the proper risk analysis, preventive steps and safety procedures, you can eliminate many potential threats to personal safety and property.

It all starts by knowing your risks. As a first step, I recommend appointing a safety committee. Tap the experience of your organization’s medical professionals, teachers, lawyers and safety experts.

Your safety committee can help assess potential risks and identify next steps to correct problems. To facilitate the process, they can draw on a multitude of online tools and checklists, including resources from our own free library: detailed safety checklists, water safety guides and guides to protect youth from bullying and other abuse.

Drowning is the leading cause of accidental death in children. And when children are with their peers, they often overestimate their swimming abilities. For added reassurance, many camp directors and lifeguards have turned to our swimmer safety program as a valuable, lifesaving tool.

The program makes it easy to determine children’s swimming skills using a two-part swim evaluation. It also includes color-coded wrist bands, which swimmers (and non-swimmers) are required to wear at all times.

While the best risk analysis is done by a qualified safety or insurance expert, these basic safety tips can help you foil some of the most common camp spoilers.

Vehicles and transportation

  • Perform comprehensive inspections and preventive maintenance on every vehicle.
  • Instruct drivers (who should be 25 or older) to perform basic safety inspections before each trip — campers’ lives are riding on it.
  • Ensure that bus and van drivers have large-vehicle experience; some states require a valid commercial driver’s license.

Facilities and grounds

  • Remove sharp objects/toys or furniture with protrusions; clear play areas of broken glass, sharp rocks and other hazards.
  • Ensure stairs and halls are well-lit and free of obstructions.
  • Add non-skid safety surfaces and handrails to stairs if needed; consider gates to prevent access.
  • Make sure doors with locks can be opened from both sides, and use window stops to prevent falls.

Water activities

  • Provide direct adult supervision of all youth when they’re near or in water; adults need American Red Cross or Boy Scout lifesaving certification.
  • Always have lifesaving equipment on hand (ring, rope and pole).
  • Insist that boaters and water-skiers always wear Coast Guard-approved life vests.
  • Assign a buddy to every swimmer.

Games and sports

  • Establish safety guidelines and checklists for activities and group children by age, size and ability.
  • Don’t allow games that may lead to head-on collisions or involve throwing dangerous objects.
  • Provide flashlights for everyone playing in the dark.
  • Equip bikers, skaters and horseback riders with appropriate safety equipment, starting with helmets.

Wilderness excursions and camping

  • Hire leaders with wilderness camping experience; at least one person should be trained in lifesaving and CPR.
  • Bring a well-stocked first-aid kit, adequate supplies/water and a two-way radio or cell phone – plus emergency contact info and medical history forms.
  • Dial *611 to learn the emergency cell phone number for your locale.

Weather

  • Continuously monitor reliable sources for weather reports.
  • Never embark on a wilderness trek or boating excursion if severe weather threatens – even if it’s the last day of camp!
  • Consider a special AM/FM radio with a weather band for National Weather Service information.

Personal safety

  • Perform a background check and thorough behavioral screening interview on every staff member, volunteer and vendor resource (e.g., delivery personnel) who will have access to campers.
  • Train every staff member and volunteer to recognize predatory behaviors and signs that could indicate abuse.
  • Strictly enforce policies and procedures to protect campers including:
    • Never allowing children to wander off or use restrooms unaccompanied.
    • Never allowing anyone to take a child from your supervision without express parental permission.
  • Report suspected abuse immediately – in most states, it’s your legal obligation.

Here’s to a safe, sunny summer, happy campers – and a camp experience that’s truly memorable. For all the right reasons.


Guy Russ is the assistant vice president of risk control at Church Mutual Insurance Company. Russ joined Church Mutual in August 2012 as director — OCNS program management in administration. He was promoted to senior information technology executive manager — architecture and administration in February 2014. In January 2016, he was promoted to assistant vice president — information technology. He assumed his present role in May 2018. Church Mutual Insurance Company, the nation’s leading insurer of religious organizations, is dedicated to supporting houses of worship throughout the U.S.

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