Summer Camps, Fire, and Emergency Communications

6 Lessons Learned Observing or Managing Communications During a Fire at Camp. Compiled by Ari Polsky, Marketing & Communications Associate, Camp Ramah in California

Author’s Note - I have now worked at two camps that experienced recent fires nearby: Ramah in the Rockies and Camp Ramah in California. I also observed both the Rockies and the URJ Camp Newman fire experiences online, and noted a number of lessons based on all of their experiences and communications, as well as my own with Ramah California. I am beyond grateful to the various first responders and firefighter personnel who protected Camp Ramah and the town of Ojai, and my heart goes out to all those who have suffered loss in these fires. 

Here are 6 lessons I took away from these experiences that may help other camps.

#1 Communicate Often: Even if You Have Nothing New to Say


In this day and age of 24/7 news coverage and social media updating, people expect information instantly. When a place that people care so much about, like summer camp, is threatened or experiencing a tough time, the camp community wants reassurance that the place they love is still alright. So put out updates often, even if you don't have new information. You can say the same thing differently and change your language, or even just, “no new information at this time, we will update you when we have more information.” 

If a long time goes between updates, people might misinterpret online data or get suspicious. We experienced this challenge specifically after Shabbat while we were offline, and someone went on social media immediately after and read something that was contrary to our prior updates, and shared it with all of their network. Posting often ensures that it shows up in people’s newsfeeds, and helps control the message. If you anticipate circumstances that could keep you from updating at regular intervals (such as religious observance or other interruptions), let your audience know!

Ramah in the Rockies made sure to use available technologies by livestreaming their community in song and prayer after evacuating. This gave parents who were afar peace of mind, seeing their kids engaged, and showed that the camp community can be recreated outside the mountains, streams, hills, and valleys of a remote camp. 

#2 Other News Sources: Twitter, Snapchat, Police Scanners, and Other Social Media

We live in a world where everyone has the ability to broadcast what they see and think. Some of the best reports we received of what was happening in Ojai during the fire came from people who were on the ground and updating Twitter, Facebook, Snapchat, etc. On Snapchat, you can check a map of public posts in a designated area, and we found several images and video clips from our area this way. 

The town of Ojai also has a Community Forum on Facebook, and in this forum we saw regular updates from people all over town. On the forum we connected with an Ojai resident who was working near camp and had not evacuated. She was able to give us updates from the local police scanners and from being on the ground nearby. We also listened in to the Ventura County Fire Department Scanner online for updates in the area as the fire raged.

#3 Have Everything Ready to Go- and Hope You Don’t Need It!

The morning before we found out we were in direct fire danger, our team had compiled a list of things we would want to take from camp if we needed to evacuate. Items ranged from sentimental/historic camp items (photos, hard drives), religious items (Torahs, etc), and programmatic and other important work documents. With input from several staff and stakeholders, we had the list ready to go, and it now lives as a permanent file in the event of evacuation. 

Additionally, we made a “worst case scenario packet” - a press release, quote from the executive director, camper care resources (see #5 below), a letter to our community, and a fundraising page - and we were fully prepared to use these if needed. We are so incredibly grateful not to have used these resources, but they were important to make ahead of time and have ready. The letter to our community was written with the Executive Director, the Director of Finance & Administration, and the Associate Director, with consultation from the VP of Media Relations & Strategy at the Jewish Federation of Greater Los Angeles. By having this prepared, we could be deliberate about its message and not scramble, rather than hastily writing something while emotions and adrenaline are high. (Special shoutout to URJ Camp Newman who inspired some of the specific text of our templates.)

Long story short: prepare some templates of potentially likely scenarios. 

#4 It Takes a Village...

Summer camp is a bubble, an intentionally built community. And often there are many in the community who love and care about the magic that is the camp experience. Use them. Whether it’s your board, your communal leaders (and in our case, partner rabbis), alumni, camp movement colleagues, donors, or other stakeholders, keep them in the loop as necessary and let them be your champions. When we have made major policy shifts, we have reached out to our Board of Directors and distributed talking points and an explanation, asking them to represent our interests in the community in case they get any questions. As it became clear to us that we could have an increased likelihood of damage, we gave the Rabbis in our area a heads up and told them we would let them know what ways (non-financial) they and their synagogues could support us if it became necessary. Camp builds community. Don’t be afraid to ask that community to help you out. 

Similarly, as the fire was just beginning and not yet an imminent threat, we relied on our year-round team and office staff to help us stay on message. We circulated a list of talking points for everyone to keep on their desk should they receive any questions. Especially important was the directive that all media inquiries were to be referred to the Executive Director. (Which is Lesson #4.5: Have a designated media contact.

#5 Don’t Forget Camper Care: Help Kids Process/Grieve/Express 

This is something that URJ Camp Newman did especially well: they created a document of resources and shared this with their families via Facebook and email. The resources included expert-written articles as well as reflections written by their staff and community on processing loss. 

Yes, camp is a special and magical place, but it is more than that: camp is the physical manifestation of people’s memories. These places are special because of the community, the spirit, and the memories. The physical land is what people tie most to these feelings, and the idea of losing camp creates very real feelings of loss. 

At Ramah California, our campers posted in a very organic manner sharing their prayers and thoughts for camp by posting their favorite camp photos on their Instagram and Snapchat stories. This gave them a way to see that they were not alone in their feelings: all of their counselors and friends were posting these same sentiments.

#6 Templates and Protocols

A couple of summers back, Ramah California started an “Incident Command Playbook,” where we stored templates for emails on a wide variety of topics: bed bugs, lice, counselor being dismissed, camper behavior agreements, bears near camp, and so on. We recently digitized this into an indexed Google Doc so that it can be accessed from anywhere and searched. This allows us to not have to reinvent the wheel for emails, and to adapt pre-existing emails. (By the way, ACA also has a number of email examples for things like Lice or Bed Bugs.) 

When I worked at Ramah in the Rockies, thunderstorms were frequent, and every so often it might knock out internet or phones temporarily. (We eventually arranged a backup satellite communications system.) To avoid a situation where we might be incommunicado, we wrote an emergency communications document, which included directions to update Facebook and the website, and pre-written templates (see Lesson #3) of potentially likely scenarios. Two people offsite, one in New York and one in Denver, had access to this and had been trained in the protocol. These directions came into play this past summer when Rockies experienced a building fire, and asked their offsite people to activate the protocol.  

At the end of the day, all you can do is plan. Things will happen outside your control, and you should expect the unexpected. By planning thoroughly and utilizing all available resources, these crises might be just a little less stressful to manage. 

End note: This entire experience was a true team effort, and I am happy to have had an incredible group of coworkers and friends at Camp Ramah in California that were all partners in overcoming this challenge. A huge thank you to Rachel Dubowe of URJ Camp Newman for sharing camp materials around the fire with me as Ramah California prepared for the Thomas Fire. Thank you to Lisa Holstein of Rockies for being the coolest cucumber under pressure and reminding me to use the resources available.