A member of the Community Emergency Response Team assists an injured woman
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Summer Camps Turn Teens into Preparedness Leaders

November 2019

Text Box: Campers at the FEMA Region 10 Youth Preparedness practice cribbing.

Summer has come and gone, and students have already finished several months of school. But just because they were out of school, doesn't mean they weren't learning. This year, teens had more options than ever to learn about disaster preparedness in summer camp.

In the past few years, summer camps for disaster and emergency preparedness have grown increasingly popular. These camps weave disaster preparedness with traditional camp activities. Since many summer camps already focus on building self-sufficiency, leadership skills, and teamwork, disaster preparedness has been a natural extension.

While they are all different, camps often cater to high school students and build on the curriculum for Teen Community Emergency Response Teams (Teen CERT). Through Teen CERT, students are trained to perform key preparedness and response skills. They learn to identify hazards, put out small fires, conduct light search and rescue, give first aid, and more.

Text Box: FEMA Region 10 campers prepare a victim actor to be transported in a blanket carry.

But camp doesn't stop at Teen CERT. Many camps include other readiness and leadership activities. These might include You are the Help Until Help Arrives, Stop the Bleed, CPR, active shooter training, and disaster drills. Some camps also help campers explore careers in emergency management and public service. Of course, many also include traditional camp activities, like campfires, s'mores, and high ropes courses.

Ilyssa Plumer is the FEMA Region 10 Community Preparedness Officer and helped organize the first FEMA Region 10 Youth Preparedness Camp in Washington this past August. "The camp environment," she says, "adds a level of realism…It makes the experience more relatable, fun, and engaging."

This, she believes, "encourages students to think outside the box using limited resources." The Region 10 camp, she says, was designed with a focus on activity and interaction—and very few PowerPoint slides.

Interaction is key to success in many of the camps. Mary Jean Erschen-Cooke, founder and Executive Director of Responding to Emergencies And Disasters with Youth (READY) Camp, has insisted on it from the beginning. Based in Wisconsin, READY Camp celebrated its fifteenth year in June. Organizers ask READY Camp instructors to limit lecture-style presentations to 15 minutes or less. This ensures time for hands-on activities, practice, and interaction.

One of their favorite activities, Erschen-Cooke says, is "teddy bear triage." Campers practice search and rescue by finding toys that have been "impacted" by a disaster (their scenario is on an attached note). Then, they triage the toys and prioritize their care.

Text Box: Campers at READY Camp practice their skills in the Teddy Bear Triage activity.

This activity has been such a success that returning campers volunteer to lead it. Each year, both new and "advanced" (returning) campers attend READY Camp. Advanced campers lead many activities and participate in planning sessions. Erschen-Cooke emphasizes, "We try to have advanced campers take the lead as much as possible to promote peer-to-peer instruction." This, she says, "empowers them with leadership skills" and "has been extremely successful to promote learning."

Haily Dudzinski, a member of the FEMA Region 5 Youth Preparedness Council, has attended READY Camp for several years. This year, she took part in planning sessions and helped lead activities. She has also served as Incident Commander for the final exercise two years in a row. As she took on these new roles, she started to feel more confident in her own skills. Now, she embraces these challenges. Recalling the drills and exercises, she says, "It always feels like a new adventure every time you're thrown into a new position."

But these new skills aren't forgotten once the camp ends. Many campers carry them beyond camp. In 2017, for example, five members of the Otoe-Missouria Tribe attended the Texas Youth Preparedness Camp. It was hosted by the Texas School Safety Center on the campus of Texas State University in San Marcos, Texas. Upon their return to Oklahoma, they formed their own tribal youth preparedness council. It was the first tribal youth preparedness council in the US. Four of the five teens also received instruction to become local CERT skills trainers. Then, this past July, they helped their tribe co-host the Young Warriors Tribal Youth Preparedness Camp. Held in Oklahoma and co-hosted with the Choctaw Nation, it was the first ever inter-tribal youth preparedness camp.

Bill Bischof, FEMA Community Preparedness Officer for Region 6, watched it all unfold from the start. Bischof and his colleagues in FEMA Region 6 have worked with state, tribal, and higher education partners to foster 13 youth preparedness camps across the region since 2016. "It was just tremendous to watch that investment grow," he remembers.

Text Box: Campers at the Young Warriors Tribal Youth Preparedness Camp in training.

One of Bischof's favorite parts, he says, is watching the campers gain confidence and grow. The campers, he says, "learn to work together as teens [even] though they're from different backgrounds…It seems like it cuts their anxiety and even their shyness with a knife."

By the end, campers are ready to test their skills and look forward to what's next. The camp experience often concludes with a disaster exercise. At many of the camps, these are as real as possible. They may even include victim actors as appropriate. According to Bischof, at this point, "the kids are wandering through [the simulation] like champs."

"They're trained," he says proudly, "and they know what to do."

Many camps, including READY Camp and the FEMA Region 10 Youth Preparedness Camp, also include a service-learning component. At the FEMA Region 10 camp, for example, one camper made plans to talk to his local first response community about interacting with people with autism. Others developed plans to bring CERT training to their neighborhoods, use their platforms to promote preparedness, and start preparedness clubs in their schools.

Young people have many options throughout the year to learn about preparedness. Learn about Teen CERT and other opportunities on Ready.gov. Applications for summer youth preparedness camps may be competitive or on a first come, first served basis. If you or a teen you know is interested in one of the camps this article, see below to learn more. Keep an eye out for these and other opportunities in FEMA's Individual and Community Preparedness Newsletter.

Campers in the Young Warriors Tribal Youth Preparedness Camp participate in an activity.

Washington State National Guard gives a search and rescue demonstration at the FEMA Region 10 Youth Preparedness Camp.

FEMA Region 10 campers practice a blanket carry.

Campers in the Young Warriors Tribal Youth Preparedness Camp participate in an activity.

Washington State National Guard gives a search and rescue demonstration at the FEMA Region 10 Youth Preparedness Camp.

FEMA Region 10 campers practice a blanket carry.

FEMA Region 10 Youth Preparedness Camp: Individuals in grades 8-12 can apply. Applications are competitive. Watch for applications in 2020.

READY Camp: Teams and individuals ages 13-18 years old may apply. 2020 READY Camp will be held June 15-19 in Wausau, Wisconsin. Applications are by first-come, first-served basis until the camp is full.

Texas Youth Preparedness Camp: Grades 8-12. Applications coming soon.

Young Warriors Tribal Youth Preparedness Camp: Open to tribal teens from across the US in grades 9-12. Watch for applications from the Inter-Tribal Emergency Management Coalition.

This article first appeared in the monthly Individual and Community Preparedness Newsletter. Subscribe here.