Camp Aquatic Safety

By Jessica Mieling

Whether the camp has a pool or a lake, most staff members will say the water is a favorite place for campers. After campers have been running around in the sun most of the day, the local watering hole is a great place to cool off.

It’s also one of the most dangerous places on camp grounds.

According to the U.S. Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, drowning remains the second-leading cause of death for children ages 1 to 14; in the majority of cases, these deaths occur due to lack of close supervision.

While most camp staff and aquatic leaders like to think they are doing their utmost to ensure close supervision—both in and out of the water—the truth is they can always do better. When it comes to water safety at camp, two important areas to focus on are frequent, thorough training and constant staff supervision.

Make Safety Number One
The majority of camp and aquatic staff members fall between the ages of 16 and 20. While they have been trained to handle emergency situations, they often don’t realize the seriousness of their jobs.

Many lifeguards like the idea of being outside for the summer, but don’t think about the traumatic effects of having to potentially use their skills. Meanwhile, camp counselors often focus on the fun aspects of being in the water—playing pile-on-the-counselor and other games campers may invent.

Although a counselor’s role is to model good values, help build self-esteem, and have fun with campers, the most important job is to protect the children. Campers by nature are rambunctious, energetic, and tend to run all over the place. Add water to the mix and there is the potential for dangerous situations.

How do you train staff members to ensure safety is number one in their minds?

Create a pool and waterfront policy. It should cover all aspects of aquatics, including pools, lakes, water parks, brown water, rivers, etc. Use the policy to clarify expectations of staff members and participants during activities, as well as provide a quick and effective response plan during emergencies. Include a glossary with definitions of terms used throughout the document to ensure consistent messaging and understanding among staff members. Be sure to include information on swim tests and buddy-system procedures, pool and lake rules, missing-camper and search procedures, and any other necessary facility or state codes or guidelines.

Hold a combined camp- and aquatic-leadership meeting (if there are separate staff teams) to establish employee expectations for communication, training, procedures, and accountability. Because some camps have high turnover from summer to summer, this is also a good time to start building relationships among staff members. After all, good relationships and excellent communication between camp staff and aquatic staff is essential to making aquatic safety a priority at camp.

Develop and implement hands-on and scenario-based emergency-response training. Include both aquatic staff and camp staff with counselors participating in a “swim time as a camper” experience, performing a lost camper drill (a counselor can role play), performing several specific scenario drills (first aid, breathing emergency, submersion, etc.), and taking a swim test. Be sure to include a “shock” reminder about the seriousness of water safety. This may be a news article read aloud about a drowning death, a personal story a staff member might share regarding an incident, or a video of an actual drowning. Be sure to warn staff that materials may be graphic and disturbing prior to using them. Many insurance companies can provide videos and stories as part of a water-safety program at little to no cost.

Tips For Successful Training
When it comes to staff training, two elements are the most difficult for leadership to overcome—the sheer number of staff to be trained and combating the “boring” factor.

Many facets of counselor training are upbeat and fun. Counselors are taught all of the camp songs, games, and ice-breakers to help build a sense of team … then they head to the pool where they are bombarded with rules and regulations that seemingly stifle any and all fun.

Luckily, there are ways to confront this attitude and atmosphere during training:

Incorporate ice-breakers among camp staff and aquatic personnel. The two teams have to work closely during the camp season and must communicate effectively during emergency situations.

Break into small teams of lifeguards and counselors to practice emergency scenarios. This ensures staff members know their specific roles during an emergency. Whenever possible, avoid doing “mass talk-through training.” The procedures may not be clear, most will be forgotten, and staff members will undoubtedly zone out at some point while you’re talking.

Make it real—and real fun. Try to make scenarios as realistic as possible—use actual gloves, real first-aid supplies, and fake blood and vomit! It may sound crazy, and even a little gross, but it is guaranteed to keep the staff’s attention through the entire training. It also helps staff retain the information and procedures.

It is important to verbally review and physically practice skills as frequently as possible. While aquatic staff should have regular in-services to practice skills, consider inviting all camp staff to review procedures during meetings, or invite them to join lifeguard in-services; or perhaps personnel can be required to have their own skill practice rotations during downtimes.

Constant supervision of staff members is extremely important once camp begins; lifeguards and counselors should feel comfortable calling each other out on poor safety skills and procedures. Staff should be comfortable taking issues to camp and leadership staff as soon as they occur.

Staff members who do not follow safety policies and procedures put lives at risk and must be corrected immediately.

Beware of the safety slip! As many know, staff members become relaxed midway through the camp season, and safety procedures may begin to slip. Be sure to schedule regular “safety reminders” to ensure everyone remains on point with aquatic safety.

Most importantly, all staff members should feel comfortable making a safety call at any time. If a counselor or a lifeguard feels that something isn’t right, the staff member should clear the pool and evaluate the situation. It is up to camp and aquatic leadership to ensure all staff members feel empowered to uphold aquatic safety throughout the season.

Jessica Mieling is the director of aquatics for the YMCA of Metropolitan Milwaukee. Reach her at