Doubt It or Drill It?

This time of year, I’m in high gear. I’ll visit 22 camps in the 35 days between Memorial Day and the Fourth of July.

Everyone needs a buddy at the pool and on the waterfront.

The airport lounges, rental cars and stalled traffic get old fast, but the interaction with directors and staff is endlessly invigorating. Their questions force me to think.

This year, more than in any of the previous 15 seasons, I’ve responded to questions about the waterfront.

Should water skiers wear helmets like the wake boarders do? Should campers be allowed to tube before taking a swim check? Does each lifeguard need a pair of goggles? Should rescuers cut PFDs off with trauma shears before back-boarding a boater with a spinal injury in deep water?

These questions are all up for debate, but my answers--drawn from my 25 years as Camp Belknap’s waterfront director--are: No, unless you’re doing jumps and tricks. No, unless you want to incur liability. Yes, ideally, especially if you wear contact lenses. And no, it only causes unnecessary movement.

Two surprising questions that I’ve been asked this summer are: Do you conduct a Lost Bather Drill each time your buddy count is off? Should our campers swim in buddy pairs?

I find these questions surprising because--unlike the questions in paragraph four--I didn’t think these were up for debate. Apparently they are, so allow me to end that debate.

First, let’s pick the low-hanging fruit. NO ONE SHOULD EVER SWIM ALONE. End of story.

Always have a buddy. Always. Staff and directors, too. No exceptions.

If you don’t want to take my word for it, how about the Center for Disease Control’s research? The advice on their “Unintentional Drowning” web page: “Always swim with a buddy.”

The buddy system introduces helpful redundancy to your lifeguards’ active scanning. A drowning victim cannot call for help, but his buddy--who functions as a personal lookout--can.

Buddies also give lifeguards an easy visual target. In addition to looking for children struggling at the surface, lifeguards can “count pairs” as they scan. I teach my lifeguards to look for pairs as they scan and quickly query singletons “Who is your buddy?”

If campers won’t swim within 10 feet of their buddy, they lose their waterfront privileges for a day. Simple as that. My campers learn the buddy system quickly. And my lifeguards appreciate having a high-frequency target.

If you want an effective resource that reviews buddy systems and the principles of scanning and pair counting, here is the link to my video training module entitled Active Lifeguarding : I recommend you have all of your waterfront staff watch that module. It’s free. And it could save a life.

And now the higher-hanging fruit.

When I was promoted to waterfront director, I inherited the common practice of performing Lost Bather Drills (LBDs) just once a summer: during staff training week. That minimal frequency is woefully inadequate.

Staff who perform an LBD once a season are scared of LBDs, not confident…and certainly not competent. In a real emergency, under-practiced waterfront staff freeze or hyperventilate. Not good.

So, I changed our practice to one LBD a week and one back boarding a week. I also changed the practice of ignoring miscounts. Convention was that if the buddy count in our notebook did not match the buddy count in the water, we would re-count and, if needed, adjust the number in the notebook.

The assumption was that double drownings were rare and campers leaving without informing the leader monitoring the entrance to the dock was, unfortunately, common. Therefore, we reasoned, numerical irregularities must be due to oversights, not accidents.

Our old practice is too scary to think about now and I’m proud to have changed it long ago. Not only do we drill every miscount, we also added a swinging gate at the dock entrance that says “Please Check In” on one side and “Did You Check Out” on the other. That gate has prevented 95% of oversights due to miscounts.

The drills have prevented our dread borne of doubt.

Because we conduct an LBD every single time the number of buddy pairs in the water does not match the number of buddy pairs in the dock notebook, three things happen:

(1) We prove to ourselves that we overlooked the exit of a buddy pair, not a double drowning.

(2) The lookouts and lifeguards scan swims even more carefully because they don’t want to do an extra LBD.

(3) The campers gain an appreciation of just how important our safety measures are. As a bonus, the campers also get a chance to see how skilled and prepared their leaders are.

I recommend that every youth program with a pool or natural waterfront drill an LBD each week, practice a back boarding each week and conduct an LBD whenever the buddy count is off.

Better drill than doubt.

Dr. Christopher Thurber is the school psychologist at Phillips Exeter Academy and the co-founder of . Learn more by visiting .