By Carol Lloyd
1. How are counselors chosen? Especially at sleep-away camps, it’s worth remembering that counselors function as your surrogate 24/7. Inquire about the camp’s screening process: Does it conduct criminal background checks on prospective employees? Does it require that new counselors have experience teaching or working with children? Does it investigate employees' prior work history?
2. How is the staff trained in terms of safety? In person or by phone? How many hours? Are there safety and first-aid tests counselors need to pass? How many of the counselors are certified by the Red Cross in first aid and CPR?
3. What’s the camp’s policy vis-à-vis disciplining campers and staff? For instance, does it maintain zero tolerance for drug use or alcohol abuse among staff? Are there curfews for staff as well as campers? How has the camp dealt with past infractions? If a counselor has ever been fired, ask why and use that information to learn a little more about the camp's safety culture.
4. Have there ever been serious injuries or deaths at the camp? How did the camp respond to the event? Accidents can happen anywhere, but learning about past incidents can tell you a world about how the camp deals with mistakes and takes steps to prevent future hazards.
5. Does the camp do overnight trips or excursions, and, if so, what’s the safety protocol? Good requirements may include: at least one trip leader is qualified to respond to emergencies (or "RTE," a specialized Red Cross certification), trip leaders have a minimum age, a buddy system, an emergency plan in case of a camper getting lost, and use of cell phones or walkie-talkies.
6. Does the camp have an emergency plan? The plan should cover everything from earthquakes, hurricanes, and forest fires to hostage situations, dangerous wildlife, and verbalized threats. It should also cover health mishaps like food poisoning or water contamination, child abuse, disease outbreaks, and staff deaths.
7. Is the camp accredited by the American Camp Association? No bureaucratic process can assure safety, but a camp that has gone the extra mile to get accredited has probably thought through a lot of worst-case scenarios. The ACA standards include safety, health, as well as program and camp operations — for more information about researching a camp’s safety, visit the ACA website.