Is Your Organization Ready for an Emergency?

April 21, 2022, Feature, by Jaimie Clout, CPRP, CPO, LGIT

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Why having a training mindset matters

We all know the importance of having a culture of safety and preparedness. When training for emergency response, I’m often reminded of two quotes: “The way we act is determined by how we think,” from an anonymous source, and “We don’t rise to the level of our expectations, we fall to the level of our training,” from Archilochus, an ancient Greek author. Ultimately, the decisions that we make as park and recreation professionals are directly correlated to the way that your brain is taught to think (process), while your body is trained to physically respond. When seconds matter, options must be considered and immediate action must be taken. The more thought and purpose put toward identifying actions that must be taken beforehand, the less time wasted and redundancies that occur during an actual emergency.

One of my key teaching points in training lifeguard staff is to constantly reiterate that they are the “first” first responders and must train like it. This includes always training for the worst-case scenario. Emergency situations require staff to be rational, calm and apply their training urgently.

I have worked in the public safety sector for more than 20 years and I have an extreme passion for aquatics, emergency preparedness and safety. Following are some best practices and critical questions that should be addressed when implementing a comprehensive emergency response plan and strategies for training your park and recreation staff.

Identify Your Risks

Emergencies can happen at any time, anywhere. Park and recreation facilities are no exception to this fact. During the early days of the coronavirus (COVID-19) pandemic, park and recreation professionals had a unique opportunity to pinpoint recreational areas and athletic activities that were considered “high” risk. As a result, plans had to be created to reduce and mitigate the risk of disease transmission. The same evaluation methods and levels of strategic thinking apply when taking the time to evaluate organizational risk in general. With that being said, it is important to take a detailed inventory of your organization’s level of risk and to continuously monitor and revisit these levels of risk. Some areas of higher risk can include but are not limited to the following:

Open water, swift water,
swimming pools and chemical storage rooms:

  • Does your organization have the appropriate rescue equipment, facility safety measures?
  • Does your organization schedule staff based on facility usage?
  • Are you providing appropriate and frequent training?
  • Do you work with rescue dive teams?
  • Are your chemicals stored properly, labeled properly, and do you have an updated Safety Data Sheet for all chemicals within your facility?
  • Are you complying with your local health department to provide safe swimming areas for the public?

Ice skating rinks and ammonia refrigeration systems:

  • What would your organization do in the case of a suspected or confirmed ammonia leak? Do you have leak detection systems in place?
  • Is your organization properly maintaining equipment?
  • Are your facilities’ HVAC systems functioning properly?

Tourist attractions (augmented risk when there are low-security considerations):

  • What security and visitor accountability systems do you have in place? Do you have surveillance methods?
  • What cash management systems do you have in place?
  • Are there protections in place for threats of violence?

Large event venues and areas of mass gatherings:

  • Are there areas of shelter in case of extreme weather or threats of violence?
  • Have you considered hiring, contracting or staffing private duty police officers or EMS personnel?

Summer camps, overnight camps and childcare facilities:

  • Can your facility offer appropriate care in the case of a medical emergency? Do you have emergency contact information on file for campers and staff?
  • Do you have adequate drop-off and pick-up procedures for parents and guardians? What levels of security and protection are there for facility access points? Do you have reliable communication methods for staff?
  • How often are your counselors taking attendance? Do you have “buddy checks” while campers are swimming? Do you have lifeguards on staff?
  • Is there appropriate supervision of campers at all times? How about on field trips?
  • Are your staff trained appropriately for the care of children? Do they know their responsibilities if they suspect abuse or neglect?
  • Do you have proper cleaning and disinfecting procedures in place as outlined by the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention?
  • Is there consideration for accessibility should an emergency vehicle need to get to remote areas?

Fitness facilities, aging playgrounds and play features:

  • Is your equipment inspected daily? Is routine maintenance performed at the appropriate times?
  • Do you have replacement schedules for your equipment?
  • How do you take a piece of dangerous equipment offline? How are you communicating with your public?

Areas of confined space or areas of recreation requiring high-angle or technical rescue:

  • Is there appropriate signage in place to designate hazards? Does your staff have appropriate levels of training?
  • Do you have appropriate equipment to provide rescue in the case of an emergency? If not, what procedures are in place to obtain immediate resources?

Adventure rope course elements:

  • Are inspections performed on your elements? What redundant safety checks are your staff performing?
  • Is your equipment properly stored and ready for daily use?
  • Do you offer properly fitting harness equipment for users?

Aviation hazards and contamination suspected areas:

  • Do you have areas of low-hanging power lines? What other hazards may exist?
  • Where would you land a rescue helicopter? Do you have resources in place to aid in such rescue scenarios?

Additional considerations focus on the mechanisms and environments that cause injury along with the steady increase of mental and physical health issues within the public. Emergency threats along these lines can include but are not limited to:

Environmental emergencies and hazardous conditions:

  • Does your organization prepare for natural disasters? Do you have designated areas for shelter? Do you have evacuation procedures and methods of mass transport in an emergency? How are you accessing more resources?
  • Are there considerations and procedures in place to handle high heat and extreme cold emergencies?

Behavioral emergencies:

  • Do you have access to mobile crisis resources, if necessary? Do you have methods for securing or barricading a threatening patron in place to eliminate risk of harm to themselves or others?
  • Does your agency focus on training staff to handle mental health emergencies?
  • Does your agency work collaboratively with local law enforcement?

Advanced medical emergencies (e.g., opioid overdose, self-harm and severe bleeding):

  • Does your staff train on administering Naloxone in the event of an opioid overdose?
  • How would your staff handle a threat of a death by suicide?
  • Do you have emergency bleeding kits? Appropriate staff training?

When it comes to emergency planning and strategy, it is important to take into consideration risks associated with certain age groups and special populations as well:

What potential risks are present for infants, school-age children, teens and seniors?

  • Have you considered identification of: (1) choking dangers and slip-and-fall hazards; (2) training on child-proofing, injury prevention and anti-bullying policies; and (3) appropriate staff training on diversity, equity and inclusion?

What potential risks exist for your special population user groups?

  • Can your organization provide translation services in the event of an emergency? Can your organization communicate with those who may be hearing, speech or visually impaired? What about those patrons who may be cognitively impaired or morbidly obese?
  • Are your facilities accessible for people with disabilities? Are your special events accessible for people with disabilities?

Team Up With Your Local First Responders

Teamwork is essential when dealing with an emergency situation. Every park and recreation staff member should have a clearly defined role. Additionally, including your local first responders is key to incident preplanning. These agencies are highly trained in a variety of emergency response techniques and can integrate their knowledge and experience into your organization.

When it comes to risk and emergency preparedness, your local firefighters have developed preplanning strategies for a number of buildings and facilities within your town or city. They can bring in specialized equipment to assist with rescue operations and handling hazardous materials. Your emergency medical service providers have protocols and online medical direction to provide emergency prehospital care for all kinds of medical emergencies, including mass casualty incidents.

Lastly, your law enforcement agents have specialized training in terrorism, active shooter scenarios and large-scale threats. All of these public safety personnel have roles and duties in an emergency.

Learning how to synergize the resources you have along with the resources available to you is critical in planning for emergencies. Practicing and drilling your staff is important to your daily operations but these training procedures should be done annually in conjunction with your local first responders, so that all rescuers can train properly in their roles. The more training that is done, the more prepared your organization will be to handle any emergency that may arise.

Creating Your Safety Plan

A quality safety plan clearly defines roles, responsibilities and procedures for each staff member. Communication procedures are explained, resources are listed, and all staff are expected to demonstrate competency and knowledge of the contents of the plan. Training must be conducted annually and metrics for competency should be implemented and constantly evaluated. Ideally, your organization’s safety plan should be incorporated into daily operations. Some specific elements of your organization’s safety plan should include the following but should not be limited to:

  • Chain of command expectations
  • Scenario-specific emergency action plans with detailed instructions — Emergency action plans should encompass standard operating procedures and standard operating guidelines if you currently have these instituted within your organization
  • Communication methods
  • Contingency plans if you have them

It’s About Preparation

In summary, we can use this acronym to highlight the key points in emergency preparedness for your park and recreation organization:
P – Preplanning
R – Resources available
E – Emergency action plans
P – Partnerships within the
A – Accessibility of your facilities for first responders
R – Rules and regulations of your organization
E – Education of your staff and public

Jaimie Clout, CPRP, CPO, LGIT, FF1&2, EMT-B, is Aquatics Supervisor for City of Bristol (Connecticut) Parks, Recreation, Youth and Community Services.