Protecting Swimmers in Natural Bodies of Water


Protecting swimmers in natural waterfront areas like rivers, lakes, oceans, etc. is among the most challenging tasks in the aquatic industry. It takes comprehensive staff training and thorough patron orientation to maintain a safe and enjoyable waterfront. The following protocols should be second nature for every aquatic staff member and all program leadership and should be understo od completely by any other staff who will work with children around water. These guidelines can be applied to any site –appropriate modifications should be made to address the specific issues at the waterfront being protected. Regardless of location, regardless of ownership, regardless of swimmer population…keep your swimmers safe!


Establishing appropriate protocols and training both the aquatic staff and the non-aquatic staff who accompany the children to the water is critical. Nearly as vital is teaching the children not only the rules, but why the rules are so important…if they understand the seriousness of the consequences they can be part of the solution instead of being the problem.

Train staff about site-specific hazards and rules – teach them how to educate swimmers of the dangers and how to control their behavior

  • Identify off-limit areas (piers, pilings, rapids, etc.) and submerged hazards (rocks, logs, drop-offs, etc); check the latter daily for changes to ensure the safety of the area
  • Explain the nature and impact of the site’s currents, undertows, or tides; have appropriate equipment available (boat, etc.)
  • Review the rules and how to implement them (walking on docks, feet-first entry into water, stay with your buddy, no rough play especially involving the head or neck, etc.)

Train staff in general aquatic safety protocols and procedures for your waterfront

  • ALL swimmers should be tested and marked; the test should include at least swimming, treading water, and deep-water-plunge recovery-to-swimming skills
  • Non-swimmers should have extra protection in the form of increased lifeguard ratios, USCG-approved personal flotation devices (PFDs), and/or a caregiver no more than a body length away
  • The Buddy System for swimming should be clearly communicated, strictly enforced, and regularly checked…
    • children MUST ALWAYS swim with a buddy…buddies are a group of two, never three or more (more than one set of buddies certainly can swim together)
    • buddies should have both comparable swimming ability and relational equality; don’t set a child up for bullying or abuse
    • buddies should be within arm’s reach of each other at all times
    • buddies should always be able to see one another…if anyone ever loses sight of his or her buddy the lifeguard should be notified immediately
    • buddy checks should be made often enough to ensure 100% accountability; ideally that is approximately every five minutes – the routine should be regular and easy to determine to prevent the interval from becoming excessive
    • children should not be allowed to change buddies without staff approval
    • staff who see a child without his or her buddy should initiate a buddy check if the buddy is not immediately located

Train and regularly monitor lifeguard skills

  • Lifeguard scanning and supervision expectations must be clearly communicated, frequently reinforced, and closely monitored
    • 10/10 rule–guards should scan their entire area of responsibility every 10 seconds to identify drowning patrons, distressed swimmers, and behavioral issues (rule breaking, buddies not staying together, etc.) and should be able to get to any distressed swimmer within an additional 10 seconds
    • lifeguards should be positioned in an elevated stand, standing or patrolling at the water’s edge, or guarding from a stable boat if necessary to ensure an adequate response time; guards in a boat should be wearing a PFD
    • on-duty lifeguards should ALWAYS have their rescue tube and personal protection gear (rescue mask and gloves) in their immediate possession
    • all lifeguards should be required to wear polarized sunglasses to limit glare and should position themselves so that they are not looking into the sun, if possible
    • regular in-service trainings should address ways of varying scanning patterns, moving for increased alertness, and practicing distressed swimmer recognition
    • frequent monitoring (e.g., using the Aquatic Quick Check or equivalent) and regular auditing of lifeguard behavior should be performed to ensure proper equipping, appropriate positioning, and aggressive, vigilant scanning
  • Swimmer monitoring and identification checks should be performed and monitored
    • Swimmer capability verification –the swimming ability of every swimmer should be readily identifiable – neck bands are best, but wrist bands should be easily seen during buddy checks
    • Swimmers with known medical conditions who are at greater risk (e.g., seizures, heart conditions, etc.) should be identified to the lifeguarding staff for extra vigilance.
    • Buddy checks –all buddies should be quiet and holding up their buddy’s hand within 15 to 30 seconds of initiation
    • Rapid Roll Call – staff should be able to account for all swimmers by name, buddy pair, swim number, etc. within 2 minutes (this is an out -of-water check)

Train and regularly evaluate your emergency search techniques

  • Victim-rescue and search-and-recovery training should be regularly practiced by all staff
    • non-waterfront staff whose efforts are essential to the search should be located near the waterfront to prevent delaying the search while waiting for key staff to arrive, especially during the end of swimming periods when most buddy system mistakes are realized
    • training should be documented and evaluated with the results being used to improve both the protocol itself and individuals’ skills and techniques
    • every staff person must understand and be so familiar with the procedures and protocols of victim search and recovery that response is basically reflexive – panic and confusion are very disruptive complications in a real -life search
    • practice all the parts together –don’t segment so much that staff do not understand the process as a whole or there will be failures in a real situation
  • Physical conditioning is important, especially if deep-water searching may be involved
    • the process for underwater search isextremely physically demanding
    • significant stamina and endurance are needed for sprint or distance swimming and victim recovery
    • build endurance during in-services by multiple, closely-coupled activities such as a 75-yard swim immediately followed by 60 seconds of CPR followed by a 50 -yard swim immediately followed by a victim extraction – you build endurance and introduce some of the stress of a real life scenario instead of just drudging through a 500-yard swim

Educate the children in their role in waterfront safety

  • The Buddy System is a big responsibility – emphasize to the campers that…
    • “You are your buddy’s lifeguard” –make it clear that they are to stay within arm’s reach of their buddy at all times so both are safe – this is an extremely important message for all campers to understand
    • Losing a buddy happens – it does not get you in trouble, but you have to tell the lifeguard immediately so your buddy will be safe
    • Buddy Checks are serious business at camp – you should stand or tread water quietly with your buddy’s hand held high until the check is cleared – horseplay or talking may get you in trouble
  • The rules apply to everyone
    • Orienting the campers to waterfront rules is essential. Explain check-in procedures, missing camper protocols, buddy check expectations, and missing buddy rules. Do not assume that older or returning campers will already know or remember everything
    • Campers will model the behavior of your staff. Staff must take safety seriously, and lifeguards must always be attentive to every safety rule. The rules apply to staff members as well as campers.

Account for campers

  • Rosters / Buddy Board
    • All non-aquatic activities staff should be able to determine which campers are participating in what activity at any time during the day through either the daily roster or the check-in documentation
    • Aquatic activities staff should be able to account for all children at all times - who is swimming with whom (i.e., tracking by buddies); what campers are on which boats; and where each can be found if there are multiple aquatic areas
    • Camper accountability is important in an emergency because it will expedite the process of locating a camper who is presumed missing


When a child is determined to be missing from a swimming or boating area, or was last seen in a swimming or boating area, time is of the essence. Initiate the Emergency Action Plan quickly –begin the in-water and out-of-water searches so the missing child can be located and necessary care provided.

Child is missing from waterfront or was last seen near the open water area

  • Activate the Emergency Action Plan
    • Sound an audible signal using air horn, siren, whistle blasts, etc.
    • Disseminate information –identify who is being sought, last known location, mustering location of non-search personnel and campers, etc.
    • Place one person in charge of water search, one person in charge of land search, one person in charge of non-search personnel and campers
  • Clear the water of swimmers and bring in all boats - If all boats cannot return quickly or staff are not available to supervise their return, then the dock-master should check the boat log to see if the missing camper is listed as being with one of the vessels
  • Begin the in-water search and a search of the camp simultaneously – do not wait for further verification that the child is missing or to see if s/he has been found elsewhere in camp
    • If the victim was observed submerging, begin searching there but remember that even without a current, for every foot of water depth the victim may drift two feet from where last seen
    • Shallow Water Search (water no deeper than chest deep)
      • Net Search –use an inverted tennis, badminton, or volleyball net to drag the bottom of the shallow area; this may be accomplished quickly with only two staff, which allows earlier commitment of more staff to a deep water search if necessary Keep the net tightly stretched
      • Maintain an overlapping, systematic pattern
      • Continue searching until the child is located
    • Deep Water Search
      • Should only be performed by strong swimmers – constant training and conditioning is essential to success of a deep-water search
      • Goggles or mask and fins may improve the quality of the search
      • Use as many staff to search as you can while still supervising the other children – time is of the essence –don’t delay searching if you have two or three to begin (additional staff may be added during the search)

Please call us at 800-463-8546 to discuss this or any other risk management safety tip, or visit our web site at to learn more about JCC risk management issues.


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