Combining Guest Safety and Guest Service in an Emergency Action Plan

I have worked at Mount Olivet Conference and Retreat Center for five years and have also worked at other seasonal or year round camps and centers since I was 15. I have been part of the safety committee here at Mount Olivet and part of the leadership team at other places. All of the places I have worked we had some sort of emergency plan. Some places it was written out specifically for every kind of emergency and others it simply was a rough idea of what to do. None of the places I have worked had a high tech security system but may of had a system on keeping the site and guests safe. During training we talked about our emergency action plan and some places we even practiced that action plan. And only during the last 10 years we started to really worry and put a plan into action if we had someone come on to the property that was not supposed to be there. So how or what do we do to keep our guests and our sites safe while providing great customer service before, during and after various emergencies? This is the topic I would like to spend some time on.

Camps, conference, and retreat centers are supposed to be safe places and most people do not worry about their safety while attending camp or a conference at many of our centers. And many of the camps and centers around the nation have outstanding safety records. But sometimes things happen, and we should be aware of how to handle various emergencies before they do happen. How we provide quality guest service while providing those guests with a safe and comfortable place to stay or visit can be a tricky situation. If we do not have an action plan or show that there is some security on site, the guests may feel unsafe, on the other hand if we put too much in their face on what we are doing or what is going on they may feel worried that something bad is happening or something is going to happen. Also how we react to each situation can play a role in how the guest feel and if they come back in the future. By our actions we can make guests feel safe and comfortable even during a horrible situation. On the other hand we can scare them away as well.

An emergency can be any number of things. But first I looked up the definition of emergency and this is what I found from as a noun: “ a sudden, urgent, usually unexpected occurrence or occasion requiring immediate action.” For us in the camp and conference business this might be a lost camper, fire, medical situation, hazardous weather, intruder, drowning, power outage, water leak, and the list can go on and on and can be different for each one of us. Some day we all will have some sort of emergency that will need to addressed and we will have staff and guests to be sure are kept safe or informed. Whatever happens will happen and many of those situations we will have little control over, some we can limit or be more prepared for but may not be able to prevent. How we handle each situation and how we keep our guest safe during those emergencies can make us look like heros or not.

The first priority would be to keep our guests and employees safe before, during and then after an emergency. We might take some preventive measures to ensure their safety or do things to be prepared for other situations. Also your site may have been designed with safety in mind, which over the years with expansions or remodels may not still be the case. If when the facility was first built the road went past the office or the office overlooked the parking lot. But now with improvements the office building has moved or looks out a different window. This could be a new problem that has been overlooked. Someone could enter your center without checking in. Or maybe the office now looks to the east instead of the west and whenever you get a storm it always comes from the west, you can no longer see when a storm is approaching and have less time to warn campers. These design changes and future changes may have an impact on your overall guest and site safety. They may be necessary but safety should be considered when doing changes to the facility. It may be that the new idea needs to be adapted a bit so that everyone is safe in the future.

With the priority to keep guests safe we first need to have a plan on how to handle the various emergencies that we encounter. The easiest way to do this would be in the form of an Emergency Action Plan. Many of us already have something in place. This might be from our parent organization, something that was written years ago and filed away, or something that is practiced and reviewed on an annual basis. Either way we should have and more importantly use our action plans. Also they should be reviewed and updated every few years and they should also be site specific. This is something that should also be practiced by all staff not just the core group of professional staff. Many centers have seasonal staff or volunteers and they also need to understand what to do or who to call in case of an emergency. Since emergencies come in all shapes and sizes everyone should know what to do, or at least whom to call. On one day when there are a few people on site something might only be an inconvenience but the same thing could be devastating the next week when there are 300 people using the facility. Also what the maintenance team thinks is an emergency may not be the same to the human resources or marketing team. This is where a good action plan and good communication come into play.

For many emergencies someone needs to take charge, be firm, and direct while staying calm and polite. This can be written out in the action plan. There can be a section on who responds and a listing of who is trained in certain areas. There will be situations that a specific person or department will be the only ones who know how to solve the problem while other times the closest person will need to do whatever needs to be done. Sometimes we cannot handle the situation ourselves and need to get support from outside. This might include fire, police, ambulance, other vendors, or even staff from other sites. Again this should be written out in the emergency action plan and there should be a relationship or conversation with each so you know and they know what the other knows.

There might also be other times when the guests themselves can help you solve the situation on hand. Or they might be able to help with some of the tasks that need to be done.

Everyone who works at or volunteers at our centers plays a role in guest service and they all play a role in our emergency action plans. They may not have any special training or be the person that responds to a situation but they may be able to help in other ways. There may be a need for someone to cover the phones, to direct emergency personnel, to get supplies, direct traffic or people to or away from an area, running back and forth between buildings, being an extra set of hands, or just be available during what might be a stressful time.

It is also important to be sure that all employees understand the nature of the situation and how to respond. Sometimes it may not be appropriate for the volunteer to tell the guests that there is a problem. This might be better for one of the directors or more seasoned staff members. And there might be other times that the guests may not need to know that something is happening because you as staff have it under control. Or maybe the particular situation is sensitive to those involved. The method we choose to inform our guests will vary from situation to situation. It may not be possible to address every situation in an action plan. However it is important to address the most likely situations, as well as the situations that would be time sensitive or severe. In addition to the Emergency Action Plan it may be helpful to have a list of staff and outside vendors what can be called should something need to be done. Each situation might require different staff to respond and this should be laid out in the action plan. It should also list what equipment is needed or available and where it is located.

It is important for us to keep an action plan in an area that is accessible when it is needed and keep it up to date so that we can be prepared for the situations that might arise, also it might be required by the state or federal regulators. We also might need to have something as part of a certification process.

However there is more to safety a than just having and using an emergency action plan. Some things might be laid out in a contract or staff manual and even things that are just part of the regular operation of the facility.

There are things that we do or ask the groups to do again some because of various laws, some from previous situations, sometimes because of changes in society. We might require a lifeguard whenever the pool is in use, or we might ask that youth groups have an adult for every eight youth, there are signs about warnings or risks where we need to remind people of a hazard. The maintenance team keeps trees cut back and keeps trails clear. We install fire extinguishers and have first aid kits available. We have staff trained in first aid and CPR. There is a guest book in each guest room. We put lights on the outside walking paths near the guest rooms and conference rooms. The list of things we do to give an extra level of security and safety go on. What everyone does will depend on local, state, and federal regulations, certification requirements, staffing and budgets. Also your own preferences will play a role. In most cases there is no right or wrong answer in how we handle guest safety, just as long as the guests are safe.

In working at a number of sites, visiting others and researching even more one thing that almost everyone does is having a person on call or at least available during after hours. This might be one person, it might rotate between a few people, it could be a staff member that works different hours to accommodate the time the guests are on site. Or some places have an entire security team who works around the clock doing patrols and watching cameras. Whatever the method used the idea is the same, to keep the guests, campers, and staff safe. Also to be available if there is a problem or emergency on site. This person is an extra level of safety for our guests even if it is a phone call, it is something they can do or rely on in case of an emergency. Even though we have plans in place to protect our guests and employees things might happen that we still cannot predict or might think would never happen to us. Hopefully there will be some kind of warning for these situations and how we react to them is just as important. For those facilities that have been around for a number of years and those individuals who have a passion for what we all do, already provide great customer service, we simply need to continue that during the sometimes stressful times of an emergency. Taking charge, isolating or removing the threat, communicating during the situation, and following up afterwards are important steps to any emergency.

A couple of situations that have been part of my past. Once we had a group cancel but one member of the other group over the weekend came a day early (pre planned). However with staffing schedules this left one female staff member alone with the one gentleman that was coming in. She felt uncomfortable being alone for the remainder of her shift, another staff member was able to stay. This situation might require that center to review its policy on staffing or guests on site. While working with the Boy Scouts we had a policy that no staff member was to have private one on one contact with any youth other than family members to protect both parties. Yet another center with a lake needed to make sure the canoes were locked when not in use when a storm blew them to the other side on the lake. Another site we installed AED’s as a preventive item and one had been used shortly after installation, which saved the person’s life. One camp in the mountains had a gentleman get altitude sickness and having an EMT on staff helped us make the decision in what needed to be done. The same center a girl hit a tree while sledding and the group had a firefighter, paramedic, EMT and two other guests were trained in First Aid as well, they had the girl secured to a backboard and stable before the ambulance arrived.

We put policies into place or encounter situations that make us write new policies because we want and need everyone to be safe, this might include your emergency action plan. It is also helpful to know your staff and even your guests and their skills or weaknesses. Many of the situations we encounter we can be prepared for, but it is those that we do not think of or are not prepared for that surprise us. Surprises are not good or fun when it comes to emergencies. The more we know and the better prepared we are the safer things will be. While we want to be safe we also want to be guest friendly and there are some things that might need to be sacrificed on one side or the other. There may need to be a compromise between guest safety and guest service in order to provide what is best for everyone.

What are you doing for guest safety and how does that plan fit into your guest service policy?

Jason Peterson

The International Association of Conference Center Administrators

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