Off-Site Aquatic Programming: Ensuring Safety When You Have Less Control

All forms of aquatic programming bring significant amounts of risk. The usual way to manage that risk is to control the environment and culture in which they happen as much as is practically possible. Whether it’s lifeguard ratios or positioning, the layout of the pool deck, or enforcing rules for pool users—each element serves as an important layer of protection.

Yet when the activity is off-site, the amount of control you have over these factors can vary considerably.

Whether it’s a field trip to a local community pool, aquatic waterpark or a natural body of water, we know that off-site aquatic programming is an important—and hugely valuable—part of summer programming. It is also, however, an activity that raises important and sometimes challenging questions:

  • If we are going somewhere off-site that does have lifeguards, what safety precautions do we need to put in to place?
  • If we are going somewhere off-site that doesn’t have lifeguards, should we invest in getting a staff member to be lifeguard certified, or contract a lifeguard out?

Here are our recommendations based on what we are seeing out in the field:

Off-Site Locations with Lifeguards
If your organization is choosing to do off-site aquatic programming, it is best practice to find a location that already has lifeguards in place. When picking out the venue, we suggest that you go visit it in-person first. Below are some things to consider and ask yourself and/or the facility:

  • Age and Skill: Are the facilities’ activities age and skill-level appropriate?
  • Lifeguard Availability and Training: Do they have enough certified lifeguards to effectively guard all activities and areas of the water? Are they hosting ongoing in-service training? Are they properly positioned?
  • Emergency Response Planning: What are their safety-response mechanisms?
  • Preparedness: Do they have the proper equipment needed in the event of an emergency? (First aid stations, AED, oxygen, rescue tubes, etc.) Do they have enough life jackets of appropriate sizes for the youth in your programs? If not, will they allow you to bring your own?
  • Swim Testing: How do they handle swim testing? If the facility does not swim test, will they allow your organization to perform that upon arrival?
  • Contractual Considerations: Having strong, comprehensive contracts in place with the venue you are visiting is extremely important because in the event of an incident, that contract is going to determine who holds the bulk of liability. Therefore, look for venues and agreements that provide appropriate risk transfer/indemnification.

We encourage you to download and print our list of specific questions that you can ask when vetting a potential off-site location.

Once at the facility, it is important that supervision does not stop. Below are some best practices that your organization can implement while on-site.

  • Non-Swimmer Protections: It is important that all parts of Test. Mark. Protect. are implemented consistently for every youth.
  • Buddy Checks: Assign buddies and conduct regular buddy checks.
  • Supervision: Off-site programming does not mean that staff get a break from the youth. Staff will need to provide in-water supervision when off-site.
  • Emergency Action Plan: In the event that a youth gets hurt while off-site, make sure staff are prepared on how to respond and get the youth the help that they need.

Off-Site Locations without Lifeguards
If your organization decides to go to a location that does not provide lifeguards, it is still important that you find a way to have that layer of protection. We strongly recommend that you contract out lifeguards, versus certifying a staff member. There are a few reasons for this:

  • Depending on the contract you have in place, by contracting out lifeguards, your organization may not be responsible for the certification, training or equipment of that guard
  • Lifeguards that are contracted out will have regular experience guarding
  • Your organization will not be the one taking on that legal risk

When contracting out lifeguards, below are a few things to consider:

  • Training & Documentation: Do they have record of when the lifeguards were trained?
  • Equipment: Do they have all of the proper equipment needed?
  • Legal: As discussed previously, it is extremely important that you have a strong contract in place. Some things to consider are:
    • Can you have a lawyer review the contract?
    • Is the contract providing your organization with favorable risk transfer/indemnification?
  • Insurance: Does the lifeguarding company have Commercial General Liability Insurance with limits of at least $1M per occurrence? Is your organization going to be listed as an additional insured? And can you collect a Certificate of Insurance so that you can verify the existence of insurance, limits and the additional insured status?

Off-site aquatic programming undoubtedly raises additional questions and potential challenges. Yet ultimately, whether a body of water is your own or someone else’s, you are still responsible for the youth in your care. With a little preparation and research, however, it is perfectly possible to run such activities as safely as if they were at your own location.

Thank you for all you do to keep the swimmer in your care safe.