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I was in awe of swim staff the moment I put my toe in the lake at summer camp. I was 10 years old, a fair swimmer, with aspirations of one day becoming good enough to work there as a lifeguard. The swim staff was strict, and often downright mean, but everyone respected the waterfront.
In all my years as a camper, and subsequent years as a lifeguard, I never witnessed a serious water emergency. An impressive feat, considering the thousands of campers, staff and visitors who swam, splashed and played in that upstate New York lake.
While drownings and other horrible accidents are often the result of sheer bad luck, and I am not one to point blame at anyone, I believe the reason my camp had such an impressive record, was because the waterfront staff created a culture of safety.
Though my lifeguard days are behind me, I still use what I learned then to help keep my kids safe now.
1. Use the buddy system
During unstructured swim time, camps require anyone using the water — including adults — to have a buddy. Each person is responsible for keeping an eye on his or her buddy, and letting the lifeguards no if help is needed. Families can use their own buddy system. I like the idea of one adult per child (for little ones). This means staying close in the water, but also keeping an eye out for trouble when a small child is playing nearby. Older kids may want to partner with one another, so long as both have the same swim skills.
2. Encourage children (and adults) to stay in shallower water if they are not skilled swimmers
During my camp’s Visiting Day, or any time family came to visit campers, the waterfront staff had a strict policy of testing everyone’s swimming abilities before determining which level of the lake they could enter. So, even if you were a 50-year-old man, you weren’t allowed in deep water unless you could tread water and perform some basic strokes. Obviously, this system can’t be enforced everywhere, but that doesn’t mean we can’t recognize the skill level of those we know, and encourage them to swim where appropriate. If you have a child who wants to start venturing into deeper water, make sure you are a strong enough swimmer to help them.
3. Use certified flotation devices on less confident swimmers
Life vests not only help keep kids safe, they also ease the burden of having to hold a child while you are in the water with them. Remember, “floaties” and similar items are technically not certified for water safety. Look for life jackets, vests and other devices which are certified by the U.S. Coast Guard.
4. Stay hydrated
Because sweat is constantly being washed away in the water, it can be hard for swimmers to realize when they might be dehydrated. I for one, am very susceptible to fatigue and dehydration in hot weather, so I try to be vigilant about drinking water. Dehydration can easily lead to muscle cramping and other ailments making it difficult for folks to stay safe in the water. Invest in some water bottles and encourage friends and family to drink often.
5. Even good swimmers can become distressed swimmers
Muscle cramps, fatigue, swimming in too deep water — these are just a few causes for distress. I, for one, often get severe foot cramps while swimming — a sign that I need more water (see point 4). I’m experienced enough to know to stop, rest and get a drink before swimming again. Children, however, may be having too much fun, or not want to look weak in front of their friends, so they might try to keep going, even if they really should stop. Lifeguards are trained to recognize signs of distress, and they are the first you should notify if you see someone in trouble. But, if no lifeguard is on duty, it is up to us to keep an eye out for swimmers who may need help.
It takes a village to raise a child — and to keep her safe. Let’s work together to create a fun, safe experience for our kids this summer.