Testing The Waters

By Nancy Oken

Dear Camp Director:

“I am sending you my most precious possession, my child. For the next two weeks, my son's health and safety will be placed in the hands of a complete stranger at your camp. I have known about River Way Ranch Camp for years, and I certainly understand the benefits of sending my child there, as I was also a camper there. Some of my most cherished memories are from summer camp.

“My son has waited all year to attend camp. He has kept his grades up, his room clean, has done extra chores around the house and, for the most part, he has even been nice to his sister. That was the deal for him to go to camp. He is excited and has told all his friends about your camp and the many activities he wants to learn. What's the problem, you ask? I am petrified! What training has your staff had, and are they prepared for an emergency? Before that bus leaves on Sunday, please have the director call me and share the training your staff members have completed. Thank you.”


A New Camper’s Mom

Be Prepared
Sound familiar? With over 10 million children attending summer camps each year, most parents share these same concerns, whether they voice them or not. What can you do, as a camp director, to put their minds at ease? What training do you offer, and are you certain that staff members are prepared to handle an emergency? A well-trained staff person will be able to respond to an emergency at camp and, with an excellent trainer, will do so in the years to follow.

One of the highest areas of risk for summer camps is the waterfront. Swimming, boating, rope swings, blobs, waterskiing, wakeboarding, wave runners, inner-tubing, whitewater rafting, kayaking, water basketball, water volleyball and aqua-aerobics all put children in the water for fun, adventure and excitement. Are staff members really prepared, or do you copy their lifeguard certificates and hand them a whistle?

As the owner of a family-owned camp, I require everyone working the waterfront not only to complete a course to obtain lifeguard training, CPR, first-aid and AED certifications, but to prove their skills throughout the season. Ongoing endurance training, mock-situations that test response time and rescue technique and video feedback with evaluation are all part of the weekly in-service training. Although accredited camps must use certified lifeguards, non-accredited camps have no governing board to set policies to ensure maximum safety; therefore, each camp may choose the extent of its training.

Make It An Inside Job
For years, our camp allowed staff members to train with outside organizations. Upon arrival, we tested the skills of those certified guards, and many would not pass. After all, what good is a certificate if you cannot physically do the task? The American Red Cross offers a quality class--36 hours of intense training--and the certificate is valid for three years without any additional training. The fee for this class is $75 to $150. Students also can take this class through a college but, again, it can be costly, and students frequently don't have the time between school and work schedules. Many camps offer extra money to those who arrive with certification, but are forced to hire expensive hourly guards to fill the gaps when they don't have enough certified staff.

A cost-effective alternative is to offer this training at your camp. All you need is a nearby pool, a TV and DVD player, rental CPR equipment from an outside agency and a local Red Cross chapter to work with you.

Approximately half of our 150 staff members arrive a week prior to staff training for lifeguard class. For five days, staff members rise at 5:30 a.m. to start conditioning and training to ensure they are ready for any water-related emergency. Rescue techniques, proper use of the rescue tube, pool guarding, lake guarding, reviewing emergency procedures for accidents on the wave runner or wakeboarding and lake and river-rafting rescue techniques build confidence. This is in addition to the usual CPR, first-aid and AED training. This is one of the strongest team-building activities we've ever offered. Exhausting?

Absolutely. However, these staff members not only are ready to keep campers safe, but are now prepared--for the rest of their lives--to rescue and save a life.

The Benefits
Costs for the courses were minimal, as we put a staff person through the Instructor Candidate program with the Red Cross. It does take a few weeks and classes are limited, so planning ahead is a necessity. In addition to our guards having a remarkably higher skill level than those certified by outside agencies, we have saved thousands of dollars over the years. Depending on the relationship with the Red Cross, there may be a small fee to rent CPR equipment; in addition, one may opt to bring in additional CPR instructors, depending on the number of participants. Regardless, at the end of a five-day training session, more than half of our staff members are certified as lifeguards, which enables us to open the season with increased comfort around the water.

The advantage of teaching a class is that you can move at a pace that is comfortable for the staff members. Those who need more assistance can get plenty of one-on-one attention and practice to ensure they are ready for the practical and written tests. And for those whose skills may not be satisfactory immediately, they are able to continue training throughout the summer with in-service classes until they can pass the tests.

Additional Factors
Lake safety is a whole topic of its own. Many camps offer canoeing, kayaking, whitewater rafting, waterskiing, wakeboarding, wave runners and other fun water activities on- or off-site. How prepared are staff members to make a rescue off-site? Do they know where the nearest fire station/paramedic is located? Do they know the distance to the hospital, and do they always have a phone or radio for quick communication to activate EMS or to call the camp for advice? All are critical elements for running the safest and most prepared activity areas. Camp directors should test waterfront staff members on this information prior to putting them in a position which may require them to react quickly.

At our camp, any staff member who will be working at the three lakes must also go through a vigorous lake-safety and emergency-procedure training for both on-site and off-site waterfront procedures. Again, it doesn’t matter if that staff person has been with us for one year or for 20 years; the same training is required, annually, before he or she is cleared to work at the lake. The lake staff is challenged with hours of rescue drills and scenarios as they learn boat safety, spinal boarding and other procedures expected to prepare a camper for transport.

Testing 1, 2, 3
On opening day, confident and competent waterfront staff members greet campers. After each child meets his or her bunkmate and tours the facility, everyone takes a swim test. Of course, we don’t call it a ”test,” as that may scare the little ones. We ask everyone to change into their swim suits in order to cool off at the pool after the tour. Every camper--new and returning--takes a swim test. The young campers are scheduled for “Splash-and-Play” time, which is creatively disguised for swim lessons or judging existing skills, even if he or she has passed the test. Older non-swimmers have one-on-one time with a swim instructor during rest hour, or another time during the day when no one else knows he or she is in a lesson to avoid embarrassment.

If camps work together to provide outstanding training to protect the millions of children who enter summer camps, then millions more will take advantage of the well-known benefits gained by participating in the overall summer-camp experience.

Camp owners and directors should feel free to contact me for additional information on starting your own water-safety training.

Nancy Oken is the executive director at River Way Ranch Camp. For more information, call (800) 821-2801, or visit www.RiverWayRanchCamp.com.