Buddy Up!

By Gary Forster

While visiting many camps, the most dangerous thing I witness repeatedly is lifeguards and waterfront directors who have no idea how or why they do buddy checks, and what they are supposed to be looking for.

It almost always goes like this:

Me: “Why do kids swim with buddies?”

Lifeguard: “It only takes half as long to count them during buddy checks.”

Here’s the crux: no matter how often buddy checks are conducted (every 10 minutes, every 5 minutes, etc.), it’s not often enough to prevent kids from drowning. By the time a lifeguard realizes someone is missing, he or she is unfortunately accounting for bodies instead of campers.

The only person who would know immediately if a camper has gone under is the buddy. The system ensures constant, one-on-one guarding.

Waterfront director: “Hey, kids! What do you do if your buddy has gone under or is too tired to swim?

Campers: “Call for help!”

The critical part of a buddy check is to look for buddies who are not swimming together. The entire system is not meant to rush kids to count off, but rather to identify the campers who are not sticking with their buddies, and to pull them aside to stress the importance of the system. If they still don’t get it, it’s time to pull them out of the water for a stern talking-to.

An Excellent System
Although the name implies that kids check in as buddies, there’s nothing wrong with triples; since kids typically don’t swim in even numbers in real life, don’t make a big deal out of kids only pairing up.

When numbering off, a staff member supervises the buddy board and encourages groups to pick the “top” open slots for their pair or triple. Each buddy group is numbered on the board, starting with 1, 2, 3, etc.; kids need to know their number.

Waterfront director: “What number are you?”

Camper: “17!”

Waterfront director: “Good. Keep an eye on each other–always.”

When it comes time to do a buddy check (which should probably be every 5 minutes at the start of swim periods and at the beginning of the week, and then 10 or 15 minutes as campers get the hang of it), blow one long whistle.

To indicate that swimmers realize the check has started, every lifeguard on duty also blows his or her whistle in unity so it’s loud. (One short whistle is of no use if kids are laughing or have their heads under the water. The whistle needs to be at least 20 seconds long so everyone hears it and swims to the side (or dock) to grab and raise their buddy’s hand before the whistle stops.

Immediately when the whistle stops, the first buddy group yells “ONE!” with their hands raised. Second group, “TWO!” and so on. If a number is blank, the staff person at the buddy board calls that number out in turn, (i.e., “THREE!”) so that the counting is sequential.

If all groups are paying attention, it’s possible to do a complete buddy check for 120 kids in 30 seconds. “Good job! All clear!” Two short whistle blasts indicate it’s safe to get back in the water.

Do some buddies take more than three strokes to get next to each other? Pull them aside and have a “lesson” on the importance of the checks.

Are there unaccounted-for buddies? Get everyone out of the water. Begin a lost-swimmer search. Phone and radio all program areas to locate the missing campers.

Lessons For Lifetime Safety
Lifeguards and camp directors are not meant to serve only as babysitters so kids can swim safely at camp. The goal is to educate them to be safe swimmers for the rest of their lives.

Waterfront director: “It’s not safe to swim without a buddy–even in a hotel pool. And that goes for adults, too. That’s why our staff members always have buddies.” (It’s important to set the right example to convince campers to make it a lifelong practice. And just think–it could save a counselor’s life someday, too.)

Are you surprised to hear staff members also need buddies to swim? Do climbing instructors wear helmets and use proper belay techniques when climbing on their time off? Of course they do. Safe, smart adults never hike without telling someone where they’re going and when they’ll be back; and they always wear a helmet when mountain biking. These are all life lessons that kids learn from watching adults.

The same goes for boating. Always put your tag on the board corresponding to the craft you’re taking out. That goes for the lifeguard in the power boat, too.

Waterfront director: “Never go boating without somebody knowing where you’re going and when you’ll be back. Never.”

And if the hour is over and there are still tags on the boating board? Locate those kids immediately–they may be stuck on the lake somewhere. Did they just forget to report back?

Tell them:

1. “I’m glad you’re safe because many people have been looking for you.” (Guilt works better than shame.)
2. “Please always check in and out. Someday it could help save a life.”

Drilling It Down
What’s the best time to do a lost-swimmer drill? Tell the kids it will happen sometime during the swim period. Part-way into the period, have one camper yell, “I can’t find my buddy! I can’t find my buddy!” or “My buddy needs help!”

Guards call an immediate buddy check to clear the swimming area (anyone with a whistle can start to blow it). Search procedures start immediately while the buddy check continues. Or if it’s a “swimmer in distress,” the lifeguard models appropriate use of either “reaching assist” from the dock, or from the water with a rescue tube: describing what he or she is doing so everyone watching can learn from it. The example displays another life lesson for campers to emulate.

Are you marveling over the fact your camp has never conducted a lost-swimmer drill this way before? That’s because you were taught by someone who was never trained specifically in open-water lifeguarding.

Lifeguard Skills
Every lifeguard needs to know all of these procedures, but their primary job is to constantly supervise and scan the water. Scanning skills are too involved to go into here, but it’s enough to say not nearly enough time is spent on teaching, reviewing, and supervising them.

Kids don’t drown on the surface, and drowning kids rarely call for help. Proper scanning helps prevent drowning.

It’s critical that everyone watching the water gets it right; make sure lifeguards have proper eye protection from glare (Polarized glasses), and that they are constantly rotated to new positions to prevent inattention.

Safe-Wise Consulting has some ready-to-use risk-management resources and links that can help keep staff members on their toes (www.safe-wise.com/risk-management/resource-library-main.html).

Teach Swimming. Please.
In a recent report, USA Swimming stressed that “70 percent of African-American children and 58 percent of Hispanic children have little or no ability to swim, despite many recent advocacy efforts to increase awareness of its importance. In contrast, only 40 percent of Caucasian kids lack swimming skills.”

Yet, less than 50 percent of camps still require that non-swimmers take swim lessons. What does this mean? We’re dodging our responsibility. Make the commitment now to be ready to teach swimming next summer. And follow through.

Camps shouldn’t just be a safe place for kids to play in the summer; they should be where kids learn skills for a safe lifetime. That’s more exciting than counting kids off by twos, isn’t it?

Gary Forster recently retired from a full career in organized camping. He still speaks at conferences and volunteers. Reach him at gary@garyforster.com.