Lifeguarding Essentials

As the summer draws to a close, remind your lifeguards and lookouts that laws, standards and rules help only when they are followed.

When in water over your knees, wear your PFD!

My 25 years as a waterfront director have taught me the following essential practices, among others:

Mindset is everything

The waterfront is full of distractions, so lifeguards must approach their job thinking, “I will pretend that these are my own children. They could die if I lose my focus. My job is to actively scan my area.”

As waterfront director, one of the most important functions I serve is redirecting my lifeguards’ attention when I observe it start to wane.

Campers must always swim in buddy pairs

Swimming in buddy pairs adds a layer of redundancy to the active scanning that lifeguards perform on the dock or shore. Buddy pairs also give lifeguards something to look for: the singleton camper.

Drowning is a low-frequency event, but buddy separation is common and therefore becomes a good target for lifeguards who are actively scanning their area.

The most frequently asked question on my waterfront is, “Where is your buddy?” When I hear this question, followed by the reminder for buddy pairs to swim within 10 feet of one another, I have verbal confirmation that my lifeguards are doing their job.

Staff must always swim in buddy pairs

Staff set a good example for campers and help protect one another when they also buddy up during staff swims. No one at camp should ever swim alone, even briefly.

When I need to hop in the water at an odd time to fix a mooring or tighten a lane line, I always have a fellow staff member actively spotting me and acting as my buddy.

Avoid so-called “triples”

I outlawed triples on my waterfront 20 years ago, after discovering that one member of a three-person buddy group almost always swims away from the other two. If singleton swimmers show up for a swim, I find them another swimmer with whom they can buddy.

Sticking to pairs and never using triples has made my waterfront much safer.

Never swim at night

I check sunrise and sunset times for my Zip code online and I end all aquatic activity 10 minutes before sunset, without exception. I want a little daylight time to search for a lost bather should I ever need it.

And I never let any campers or staff swim between sunset and sunrise.

Never exceed ratios

Programs vary, but I’m most comfortable with a ratio of 1 staff member to every 8 swimmers in the water. On particularly hot days, I rotate campers onto the dock or add more lifeguards so that ratio is never exceeded.

During instructional periods, a single leader may have up to 10 campers, but no more than 8 are in the water at once.

Use PFDs liberally

When an off-camp trip includes a water element, we follow this rule: “Above the knees requires PFDs.”

That means that dipping your feet in a cool mountain stream is fine, but as soon as there is any significant wading or swimming, every person is wearing a properly fitting Type III personal flotation device.

Please contribute your own lifeguarding essentials by posting comments or emailing me: Look for your suggestions to be included in a full-length article in Camp Business in the near future.

Enjoy the rest of the summer!

Dr. Christopher Thurber is a board-certified clinical psychologist, father and author of The Summer Camp Handbook, now available online for free at He is the co-creator of, a set of Internet-based-video training modules for camp counselors, nurses and doctors. He can be reached via e-mail at

Related posts:

  1. Doubt It or Drill It?
  2. Buddy Up!
  3. Waterfront Safety And Preparation
  4. What Signal Does Your Sign Send?
  5. Watch Out For One Another

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