By Randy Gaddo
With spring in the air, children begin to anticipate the end of another school year and the start of summer camp; this is why parks and rec professionals are gearing up now for high-paced action.
When parents drop off their children at a summer camp, they probably don’t think twice about the type of preparations that were made to maintain the site in the off-season; nor should they have to think about how the camp is maintained while campers are there. Whether it’s a local camp that uses open fields, or more involved and specialized camps that feature a multitude of facilities and equipment, maintenance of camp venues is a critical element for success.
Proper maintenance and risk management go hand-in-hand. A well-thought-out program that is properly overseen ensures a minimum potential for accidents, equipment failures, delays, changes to camp schedules, and a host of other issues over which camp facilitators lose sleep.
In many cases, the venues used for summer camps are facilities already in the department’s inventory. In some cases, a camp may involve travel to third-party locations; however, even in these cases, department vehicles may be available or department facilities may be used as pick-up and drop-off points. In all cases, somebody has to be thinking about maintenance of camp venues and assets.
An Industry Resource
Staff and members of the American Camp Association (ACA) think about these important issues all the time. The ACA (www.acacamps.org) is a national, 501 c(3), non-profit organization that was started over 100 years ago and now has more than 11,000 individual members and 3,000 member camps. The organization provides many resources, some as member benefits and others that are free to the public.
Officials at ACA note that risk management is always a priority in many camp operations, including maintenance. ACA is the only national accrediting body for the organized camp experience, according to its public-relations coordinator.
ACA accredits approximately 2,400 diverse camps nationally. Those camps meet 300 health and safety standards. All accredited camps, whether remote wilderness camps or city organizations at a local gymnasium, also meet standards related to maintenance.
To seek accreditation, a camp must pay an annual fee that is calculated on a sliding scale, based on geographical location. Camps can also pay an annual fee and become member camps without seeking accreditation.
The ACA announced on its website and was affirmed by the public-affairs rep that it offers a free one-year membership to first-time participants
A Tall Order
Keith Kender, as the long-standing property manager for Camp Tecumseh in Carroll County, Ind., has taken full advantage of what the ACA offers. He is responsible for maintenance of the 660-acre site, one of the largest YMCA camps in the country, according to its website (www.camptecumseh.org). With more than 36,000 guests in year-round programs, staying on top of maintenance is a challenge.
The camp ”[o]perates as a traditional, week-long summer camp for nine weeks in the summer. We also operate an on-site, day-camp program during the same time frame. We serve several specialty groups in the weeks before and after the summer-camp program.”
Those specialty groups include a 4H camp; a Touchstone Energy Cooperative Camp; Kidney Camp; Hoosier Burn Camp; Quilt Camp; and several others. If that wasn’t enough, the camp provides outdoor education experiences for schools across Indiana and a few from across the state line; it hosts retreat groups such as the Y-Guide programs, Girl Scouts, and family-camp weekends.
With that level of use, facility maintenance is far from routine; however, Kender says, “Routine maintenance issues include lights out, clogged drains, furnace not heating, torn window screens, no hot water for showers, cleaning gutters, and trash removal.”
Additionally, he notes, “There are more challenging issues that we deal with, such as tree care on our heavily forested site, where we lost literally hundreds of ash trees in the last few years to the emerald ash borer,”
Kender discusses a phenomenon that exists in general recreation related to programming and maintenance staff in public-recreation settings. Oftentimes, the programming staff doesn’t know about—or underestimates—the impact it can have on the maintenance of the facilities; and maintenance staff members don’t know what programmers need to make their programs successful. A symbiotic relationship exists, and the success of both relies on good communication.
That relationship is tested daily at Camp Tecumseh as Kender and his maintenance staff tries to find time to do routine maintenance as well as major repairs and remodeling, while the programming staff members try to utilize the facilities at full capacity year-round, keeping everything operational while guests attend.
“As a rural camp property, we are miles from a lumber yard, hardware stores, and parts stores,” says Kender. “We have a large inventory of material and commonly needed repair parts on hand to avoid making trips to town on a daily basis.” Of course, maintaining all the spare parts and materials means keeping a careful inventory of all the items and having space to store and organize them so they can be easily retrieved when needed.
Kender says that it is also challenging to keep up with new building codes related to energy-efficiency standards and recent fire-sprinkler code changes.
The camp challenges that Kender faces probably sound familiar to parks and rec maintenance professionals trying to maintain their own facilities and camp sites. “I believe there are some similarities between camp operations and parks and recreation facilities in terms of general building maintenance, grounds care, and commercial-grade equipment,” he says. “Depending on the specific facility, I think that camps often see a higher concentration of user-population density compared to other facilities. People expect clean, safe, and functional facilities. We have a maintenance-staff person on call whenever we have guests on-site.”
Based on his decades of experience, Kender has several suggestions. “It is important to establish good relationships with your state and local officials who you will have contact with, along with local vendors, suppliers, and contractors. Take advantage of local lumber yards, plumbing suppliers, and electrical suppliers’ appreciation events. They provide a great opportunity to interact with their staff, and usually they have displays of new products and how-to demonstrations.”
Those familiar with maintenance at camps know that issues and emergencies generally don’t occur when it is convenient; in fact, it seems like they occur at the most inconvenient times, like in the middle of the night. Kender suggests compiling and maintaining a list of emergency and after-hour contact numbers for in-house or contract septic pumpers, electric-utility companies, the water-service company, a parts-supply house, and any other contractors, such as plumbers, electricians, or excavators. Everybody’s needs are different, depending on the type of camp he or she operates.
“Hopefully, these will be people you deal with on a regular basis and have established good working relationships with,” Kender says. “Familiarize them with the operations of your facility and how important it can be for you to rely on them for daily operations as well as when urgent situations occur.”
Keeping these lines of communication open with supporting organizations is important in any parks and rec maintenance setting, but it can be especially important with maintenance of camp facilities because they often are not open all year long, every day.
The average parks and rec summer camp isn’t a routine, daily operation, so maintenance of sites may not always take top priority until the camp start day is looming. When the camp is due to open in days or weeks, and it is suddenly discovered there is not enough electrical capacity to accommodate the new operational load, or there are broken pipes when remote restrooms are opened, or ropes on a course need replacement, etc., that can be a major problem.
That’s the time it’s good to “have people,” as the saying goes.
Randy Gaddo, a retired Marine who also served for 15 years in municipal parks and recreation, is now a full-time photojournalist who lives in Bay Minette, Ala.; he can be reached at (678) 350-8642 or email firstname.lastname@example.org.