Managing Aquatic Activities

This is the season for camping, beach, and swimming pool activities. Below are some tips and guidelines to assist you in offering your students a safe swimming experience. Our primary focus in this article is staff to child supervision ratios and safety practices. The information incorporates best practices standards from the American Camping Association and the YMCA.
ACA Camp Standard - Staff Supervision Ratios for General Camp Activities
These ratios apply if there is no requirement for special technical skills, equipment, or safety regulations specific to the location. Ratios vary depending on the activities offered at a camp. Some activities (ropes courses, archery, gymnastics, bicycling) require supervision by persons with specialized training and experience.

General camp supervision ratios:

   Camper Age      
   Overnight Staff-to-Camper Ratio  
   Daytime Staff-to-Camper Ratio  
    5 years and younger    
1:5 1:6
6 through 8
1:6 1:8
9 through 15
1:8 1:10
15 through 18
1:10 1:12

YMCA Camp Standard Trip and Travel
For camp programs, the YMCA (Y) follows the ACA standards. In addition, the Y applies the ACA standard for specialized activities and determines what leadership type and ratio would be appropriate to the trip and the campers. Due to the increased difficulty in supervision, leadership ratios on trips must be higher than at the base camp. Campers are also to be assigned to a specific leader.

Y Standard Aquatics and/or Field Trips involving Water Ratios
Many day camps take day trips, either off site or away from the base camp. Activities that involve higher supervision needs such as aquatics or travel trips involving water require that the camper groups all be changed to a 1:6 ratio during the excursion. However, lifeguards are not included in this ratio.
There is no regulatory code that states a lifeguard to swimmer ratio. General guidelines recommend that there be at least two lifeguards on duty. The skills training that is designed for lifeguards places emphasis on a team approach to care. How many lifeguards are needed depends on the level of risk, the availability and experience of additional staff that are present to support them, the swimming skill level of the swimmers, the experience level of the lifeguards, the type of program activities in the water, and environmental factors such as sun glare, rain, wind and shadows from buildings and trees that make viewing areas of the water (including the bottom) difficult for lifeguard surveillance.
Aquatics Safety at Waterfront and/or Ocean Facilities
There are specific potential hazards presented by some waterfront facilities.  Dangerous water conditions may develop with changing winds, tides, and the clarity of weather and water.  These conditions can change throughout the day. Here are some recommendations:
  • The lifeguards should perform an inspection of the water before allowing swimmers into the water. Special attention should be paid to marine life (jellyfish, stingrays), glass/metal, submerged rocks, abrupt changes in depth, etc.
  • Specific water rules should be posted or otherwise disseminated.
  • Lifeguards should: conduct a safety orientation about general water safety; offer specific information about the waterfront facility; and review the waterfront rules.
  • Lifeguard is to administer a swim test for each swimmer.
  • Swimmers are assigned a buddy (paired with someone with the same swimming ability).
  • Perform buddy checks throughout the swim activity on a prearranged signal.  
  • Each group leader actively supervises their group during the swim activity.
  • The lifeguard on duty is not assigned a group and is solely responsible for swimmers in an assigned “zone” of coverage.
  • Lifeguards actively scan their zone of coverage and are rescue ready (whistle and rescue tube in arms or on lap with strap over shoulder).
  • To enable them to maintain vigilance, lifeguards should be given a 10-minute break for every hour of surveillance (they may do other activities not related to lifeguarding).  During breaks, if no lifeguard is on duty, all swimmers must be out of the water.
Before the Trip
  • Each parent should fill out a swimmer ability questionnaire. For field and activity trips, this can be incorporated into the Voluntary Activity Permission/Waiver Form. Ask your Risk Management Consultant for assistance if needed.
  • Draft and implement an Emergency Action Plan (EAP) for waterfront facilities and ensure that lifeguards on duty have been orientated on the EAP prior to swim activities.
  • Be sure that a first aid kit and required safety equipment for lifeguards is present (see Title 22, Section 65540, Safety and First Aid Equipment).
  • Collect a copy of the lifeguard’s current certifications (see Health & Safety Code, Section 1797.182).
  • Group leaders should have training on water safety (Red Cross offers this training).  They should know how to prevent, recognize, and respond to water emergencies. This includes recognizing the characteristics of someone who needs help in the water, knowing how to respond safely in an emergency, proper assistance techniques, and when to use them.
This information is provided courtesy of Lisa Harvey, ARM-P, CPSI, Senior Risk Consultant, Poms Risk Services, a safety and risk management services provider to CharterSAFE. Prior to Poms, Lisa spent thirty years with the Y (including fifteen years as the Director of Risk Management in Orange County).
Your Primary Risk Management Contact is:

Sue Bedard

Senior Risk and Claims Manager

Phone: 818.709.1570
Toll Free: 855.394.5939
Fax: 916.720.0324