A Plan For Action

By Matthew Griffith
© Can Stock Photo Inc. / ivelinradkov

While there are many benefits, professionals in the recreation and sport field today must be aware of the various risks as well as the liability involved. Despite the best risk-management practices and preventive efforts, it is safe to assume that emergencies and injuries can and will happen. Developing and implementing an effective Emergency-Response Plan (ERP) should be the first step in the process.


A team consisting of three or four key people, including those from all levels (not just management) with varying experiences related to emergency situations, is responsible for all phases of planning. The same group should also regularly review and update the plan. A simple method involves developing, implementing, and managing the plan.

Develop The Plan
With a team in place, begin by researching and assessing the types of emergencies that might occur. First, complete a comprehensive review of all incident (or accident) reports on file. They should be categorized by severity and then reviewed for trends and issues that need to be addressed in the ERP. All litigation at the facility and similar facilities must also be examined. The organization’s legal counsel and insurance representatives should be invited to review this information too, as they may be defending a potential lawsuit. Second, ask colleagues and experts at other facilities what types of incidents they have experienced. The list should include:

  • Major medical events (drowning, cardiac arrest, spinal injury, unconsciousness)
  • Minor medical maladies (soft-tissue injury, uncomplicated muscular/skeletal injury, illness)
  • Facility evacuations (fire, bomb threat, chemical leak/spill)
  • Missing child
  • Physical assault/fight
  • Any others deemed necessary.

Every incident and the circumstances surrounding it are unique, and it is simply not possible to plan for every emergency. Instead, focus on creating guidelines using generic categories, and allow staff members to rely on their extensive training to channel appropriate actions. In evaluating each emergency, consider:

  • What needs to be done?
  • Who should be responsible for what?

Outline the roles and responsibilities of each position, and assign a specific job to perform during and after an emergency. Make sure that each person has the proper training and appropriate skills.

  • Designate an “incident commander” or “person in charge” to coordinate the overall response. This is typically the role of the manager on duty, such as a building supervisor.
  • Clearly define a “call person” who will notify local emergency services, meet them at the entrance, and direct them to the patient. This can be a desk attendant or facility guest.
  • Ensure that someone is responsible for “crowd control” to keep people away from the scene.

Even with proper training for staff, emergencies are sometimes chaotic. In most large-scale events, two of the most critical issues often cited in “after-action reviews” are a difficulty in communicating and a loss of accountability. It is imperative that recreation professionals make sure their plans:

  • Establish communication procedures. This may include the use of two-way radios, a public-address system, phones, whistles, hand signals, etc.
  • Create an evacuation place specific to the facility. Make sure the area will accommodate the user group, and will not interfere with the efforts of emergency responders.

Be sure the plan does not overlook follow-up tasks:

  • Create an emergency contact “phone tree,” and ensure that staff knows who is responsible to communicate to supervisors.
  • Designate a media spokesperson. This is generally senior administration with specific training to handle media inquiries.
  • Identify individuals responsible for ensuring the facility is ready for guests. Make sure all necessary equipment, the facility, and especially staff members are ready prior to re-opening.
  • Define who completes incident forms, determines what information is included, and knows where they are submitted for review and filing. Post-emergency documentation is part of the ERP.
  • Provide an emergency-incident debriefing for the staff members involved to analyze the ERP and identify areas for improvement. This should take place as soon as possible after the emergency.
  • Involve professional counselors to determine who might benefit from Critical Incident Stress Debriefing (see sidebar).
  • Follow up by recording all interactions with injured guests and staff.

While developing the ERP, it can be extremely helpful to obtain input from local emergency-service agencies, such as ambulance services, police and fire departments, and hazardous-materials response teams. Many of these responding agencies already have a “pre-plan” for facilities in their coverage area; it makes sense to collaborate so transferring care or handling an emergency is as smooth as possible.

Implement The Plan
Once a final version has been approved, it should be printed and distributed to all staff members. It is important that the published plan includes all necessary documents:

  • An emergency-contact phone tree
  • MSDS information
  • Exposure-control plan
  • Evacuation plan
  • Worker’s compensation information
  • Witness interview forms
  • AED use forms
  • Incident report forms.

Different versions of the plan can be given to different staff members (desk attendants may not need as detailed a plan as lifeguards). The printed plan (specific to the staff position) should also be a part of every employee manual.

Once the plan has been formally published and distributed, training must take place. This step cannot be over-emphasized; it is crucial that the plan be rehearsed until all elements run smoothly. In his book Deep Survival: Who Lives, Who Dies, and Why , Laurence Gonzales estimates that only 10 to 20 percent of emergency-response efforts go according to plan, which is why practice and rehearsal are so important.

Regular rehearsal also should occur during weekly or bi-weekly in-service training sessions. This is the time to remedy problems and revise the plan if necessary. In addition to practice, a drill program can be implemented. This is good practice for facility evacuations, missing-child procedures, and other medical emergencies, as long as they do not interfere with daily operations and facility guests. Be sure to give adequate notice to guests during all training sessions so they are not alarmed and think there is a real emergency. Also, remember to document each training session and drill to reduce liability; it supports the contention that the staff was properly prepared to handle the emergency.

Manage The Plan
This responsibility falls on the emergency-planning team to periodically monitor the procedures for efficacy. Answers to basic questions after a rehearsal or actual emergency can provide the basis of managing the plan:

  • What went well during the response?
  • Was the ERP followed appropriately?
  • What can be learned from this incident and the way the staff responded?
  • Do any aspects of the ERP need to be changed?

A staff debriefing is a good time to answer the above questions and obtain information about how well the ERP worked. Any necessary changes should be made, and new procedures should be implemented immediately. Remember, the ERP is a dynamic document that needs to be reviewed and revised as often as necessary.

Today, the standard in the recreation and sport industry demands that every agency and facility have a customized ERP. The lack of a well-developed and rehearsed ERP may have tragic consequences. When it comes to emergency planning, “failing to plan is like planning to fail.”

Matthew Griffith is the pool operator at the Georgia Institute of Technology in Atlanta. He holds graduate and undergraduate degrees in Recreation and Leisure Studies, and has an extensive recreation background that includes managing aquatic programs in the municipal, private, and university sector. He has published numerous articles in the recreation and aquatic fields.


Critical Incident Stress Debriefing
The Critical Incident Stress Management model, developed by Dr. Jeffrey Mitchell, was initially for use with emergency-services personnel, such as paramedics, firefighters, and police officers, but has since expanded to include others in emergency situations. It is important to understand that Critical Incident Stress (CIS) is the body’s natural reaction to coping with a traumatic event. The mind continues to review the memory of the incident, trying to bring “closure” to the event. The mind is not satisfied until “it makes sense” or the “incident was logical,” and truthfully, this is not usually the case. Lifeguards or employees suffering from CIS need the assistance of a trained mental-health professional to help them take the active memories of the event and store them in long-term memory. It may be helpful to involve these trained professionals in certain de-briefings.