Buddy Up!

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.

A Buddy Board is an essential safety tool.

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.

Time for a buddy check!

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.

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  3. The Buddy System
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