Their motto is: “Be prepared.”
But as the disaster-riddled National Boy Scout Jamboree carries on following five deaths and hundreds of heat-related illnesses, event planners from across the country are wondering just how prepared the Scouts were.
“That’s the part that breaks my heart — there are things you can avoid and things you can’t,” said Phyllis Cambria, an event planner from Boca Raton, Fla., who has written several books on the subject. “This one sounds like it was an avoidable one.”
Scout officials say they are not ready to place blame and are still investigating the incidents. But several outside specialists said allowing tents to be placed near power lines and failing to keep Scouts cool in searing heat were enormous oversights.
On Monday, four Scout leaders were electrocuted in front of several Scouts after they lost control of the towering metal pole at the center of a large, white dining tent, sending it toppling into nearby power lines. The day before, a volunteer was taken to a hospital where he died of an apparent heart attack.
On Wednesday, 40,000 Scouting enthusiasts waited hours in the stifling heat for an appearance by President Bush, who ended up postponing his visit due to the threat of severe thunderstorms. Sun-sick Scouts began collapsing and more than 300 people were treated for heat-related illnesses.
“I don’t think it’s wise to make judgment on things that could’ve, should’ve, would’ve been done,” Jamboree spokeswoman Renee Fairrer said.
The troops involved in the electrocution accident hired a contractor to set up the dining tent. The contractors asked the Scout leaders for assistance in erecting the structure — directly below a set of power lines.
Sam Waltz Jr., a crisis management specialist from Wilmington, Del., said organizers should have laid out a grid map in advance that clearly identified danger areas where power lines hang and planned for tents to be set up far away.
“If someone had gridded it out, then no one would have been putting a tent under that particular power line,” he said.
The Scouts also should have insisted on conducting a background check of the contractor, Cambria said.
'You can't explain it'
Scouting teachings dictate that tents not be erected under trees or power lines, a Jamboree spokesman said. And potential Scout leaders go through rigorous safety training before they join the organization, said Scout leader Kevin Rudden, 51, of Mendon, Mass.
“It’s the most safety-conscious, risk-averse organization I’ve ever met in my life — there’s a policy for everything,” Rudden said. “That’s why it’s just surprising that this happened. I mean, it’s just counterintuitive to all that you’re trained. You can’t explain it.”
Fairrer would not speculate on whether the Scouts could have done something to prevent the electrocutions, citing the pending accident report.
“It was just an unusual freak accident that happened Monday,” Fairrer said.
Struck down by the heat
What could have prevented the heat illnesses is another question.
“You’d like to say the cool heads should have recognized the potential for heat-related illness, but it’s so extraordinary — I suspect the president’s security precautions really were the driver,” Waltz said.
Indeed, White House security rules dictated that the Scouts go through lengthy security checks and be waiting inside the arena two hours before the president’s arrival, Fairrer said.
“The White House security rules ... are certainly in place to make sure the president and his entourage are protected and we certainly respect that,” she said. “But at some point, we have to say this just jeopardizes the health of the youth too much.”
Nonetheless, Jamboree organizers should have known the weather was going to be hot during July in Virginia, said Robert Smith, president of an event planning and public relations firm outside Chicago. They could have struck a deal to have air-conditioned buses kept running for the Scouts.
Cambria said several other key pieces of equipment could have helped:
- Water misters and large, outdoor fans
- Personalized fans for the children
- Tarps to shield the waiting Scouts from the sun
Such suggestions will be considered for the Jamboree scheduled for 2010, Fairrer said.
While this year’s Jamboree has been unusually problematic, past Jamborees have had their share of accidents. In 1997, a 16-year-old Boy Scout from Pennsylvania was killed at the Jamboree when an Army Humvee he was not supposed to be driving flipped over. Three passengers were hurt. And in 2001, lightning strikes caused minor injuries to two Scouts.
The 7,400 volunteers who work at the Jamboree fill out a journal after the event with suggestions on what worked well and what didn’t, Fairrer said. The Scouting organization will take that information and use it to make improvements for the next Jamboree. On Thursday, every subcamp had an hour-long safety presentation, she said.
The Scouts have also had their share of successful responses to emergencies. Michael Schultz attended the 1985 Jamboree as a 12-year-old when the camp was hit with the remnants of a hurricane. Youngsters huddled under a tarp as the wind and rain picked up their tents and carried them 100 yards away to a gulley.
Jamboree organizers took charge of the situation, bringing in trucks to haul the Scouts’ sleeping bags to dry cleaners. Each bag was returned to its proper owner before bedtime.
Schultz, 31, of Waltham, Mass., now works in public relations and often uses the event as an example of how to respond in a crisis situation.
“That one was handled brilliantly,” he said.