Red Cross General Water Safety


Unique to PA

Pennsylvania Child Care regulations require a water safety presentation for staff assigned to supervise children when they are using an aquatic resource. The resource may be a pool sitting on the lawn in the yard of the child-care facility, an above ground pool or in ground pool, a public pool such as a YMCA or community pool or a lake, river, or stream.

This lesson is part of the efforts to the site,, a community learning outreach hub operated as a labor of love by Coach Mark Rauterkus.

As a certified lifeguard and Water Safety Instructor for the American Red Cross, we can work together to get you the certification for the General Water Safety from the American Red Cross so as to meet-and-exceed the requirement for working at your camp.

Coach Mark Rauterkus talking to kids and adults about SKWIM and water safety at the Greensburg Country Club.

I’ve been a swim coach for 10-years in the city of Pittsburgh, to 2018 as the boys varsity head coach at Pittsburgh Obama and more recently as a coach with The Ellis School, Pittsburgh Combined Water Polo, Pittsburgh Masters water polo called the Renegades and with The Pittsburgh Project. I’ve been a college coach for nine seasons and have been associated with pools and camps since 1976.

The water safety presentation from the American Red Cross must be presented each year for qualifying staff. This course can fill that need.

Each participant completing the program will receive a participation card indicating the completion of the program. The completion card is valid when supervising for any PA child care facility. With the, we also do “digital badges.”

Anyone watching children who are in, on, or around the water must understand that drowning happens quickly and suddenly.

In the past, Pennsylvania had the dubious distinction of leading the nation in child and youth drowning

PA child cares sites experienced far too many drowning situations in previous years. The objective of this lesson is to review the PA Regulations and in the process, become better able to:

  • recognize the risks of the aquatic environment,
  • identify, prevent and respond to emergencies,
  • understand safety practices and rules necessary for a safe day at the pool, and
  • list specific procedures you are asked to use when using an aquatic feature.

There is no room for compromise. One negative experience for a child is one too many.

We do not want any first-hand learning based upon negative, tragic experiences. Best practices should be our preferred teacher.

Drowning is defined as suffocation in a liquid.

The liquid we are concerned with is water. It only takes an amount of water capable of covering the mouth and nose for the drowning process to begin. This may happen in a pool or a puddle — given the right circumstances.

Drowning involving children usually begins as a breathing emergency, not a cardiac event.

The term, “near-drowning,” is an obsolete concept these days. Near-drowning (old school) refers to a water emergency requiring the hospitalization of the patient, usually the result of submersion. The child experiences breathing arrest but a quick and efficient response on the part of someone prevents cardiac arrest.

Drownings can be fatal or not fatal. Many drownings lead to significant life-altering conditions for the victims.

An additional injury of concern is spinal injury.

This injury is usually the result of someone diving into water and striking the bottom of the pool or diving into a submerged object. You should instruct each of your children to enter the water feet first in water less than 9-feet-deep.

With small children you also need to be concerned with children lunging forward hitting the side of the pool, striking a play structure, tumbling head-first from a play structure, or falling while running on the deck. Hitting one’s head on the pool deck with wet, slippery feet can lead to a concussion. Likewise, swimmers can hit heads onto the side of the pool while swimming, especially doing backstroke.

The other big concern is being pushed and landing halfway in the water and falling hard into the deck.

None are ever to be pushed into the pool.

Swimming is the best

I love swimming, and our aquatic activities for many reasons.

There are many positive statements you may use to justify providing the aquatic experience for your children. Under proper conditions you will each agree that the activity is considered safe. Remove supervision, eliminate barriers, or fail to enforce rules and you potentially have a dangerous activity.

Confidence with your abilities to manage yourself in an aquatic environment leads to various recreational activities. For example, fishing, boating, fitness swimming and skin or scuba diving may each become life-long activities for the person properly exposed to the water.

Providing positive experiences early, including swimming lessons, may result with years of enjoyment in, on and around the water. The opportunities you provide the children serve as the building blocks for recreation, fitness and safety for a lifetime.

Some of the negatives

Drowning is the first leading cause of unintentional death among children ages 1 to 4 and ranks second among children ages 1 to 14.

These are the ages of the children you will be supervising in the aquatic environment.

The drowning process can begin in as little as 15-seconds and last only 45-to-60 seconds. Children drown not just in swimming pools, lakes, rivers and streams but in bath tubs, toilets and buckets. It is estimated, for example, that 30 children drown annually in buckets.

Beyond the fatal drowning, other serious incidents occur that should be eliminated

Within the age groups of our kids, for every fatal drowning, 1-to-4 additional children experience a non-fatal drowning and receive treatment at a hospital. Keeping in mind that drowning usually begins as a breathing emergency, due to the absence of oxygen to the brain for a period of time, many of these children suffer permanent brain damage.

For every 5,000 that are sent to the hospital for care, 15% die with another 20% suffering a severe permanent neurological disability.

The supervision you provide must be constant and effective. The time-line for the drowning process has no room for error. Always remind yourself that “seconds matter” when supervising children in, on or near the water.

Lifeguards get distracted

Even though you may be taking the children to a public pool with lifeguards on duty, your supervision must remain as intense as if you were watching the children without any lifeguards present. Be vigilant at a public pool to the same extent that you’d be while at a back-yard pool without any hired lifeguards.

Almost one-fifth of drownings in this age group take place in the presence of a lifeguard at a pool.

Never leave a child unsupervised in or around a swimming pool because there is a lifeguard on duty at the pool.

Never rely on a PFD, a personal flotation device.

Never rely upon swimming lessons nor passing the deep-water-test as a fool-proof way to protect a child.

Almost 3 of every 4 children who drown are with one or both parents at the time of the incident.

Studies show that parents, even though they may be near the child, are talking to others, reading, eating, or attending to another matter such as talking on a cell phone.

Remember the timeline for the drowning process. You have seconds to identify and respond to an aquatic emergency.

Other studies have clearly indicated that parents thought their child was playing when in fact the child was in need of assistance.

Many reports show that a bystander has intervened with a child even though the parents were very close. Constant supervision of their activities remains a key focus of any water safety program.

Where is …

At the very first hint of whenever a child is reported missing, immediately go to check the water.

Data reveals, the accidents happen the pool with missing kids usually within 5 minutes. When a child wonders off, perhaps between two adults, react instantly.

Always check the pool or body of water first. Seconds count in preventing death or disability.

Go to the edge of the pool and scan the entire pool, bottom and surface, as well as the surrounding pool area. Empty the pool of patrons and move the children to a secure location away from the water with adult supervision until the missing child is located. Scan the pool again after the pool has been cleared.

Usually, a drowning begins as a breathing emergency.

It is therefore important that those supervising children know how to use rescue breathing and CPR.

A telephone must be present at all times.

An emergency action plan should not only be in place but reviewed by staff before children are permitted to go swimming.

Emergency equipment should be checked and ready for use.

Any child that has been submersed or showing signs of respiratory distress after a rescue should be taken to a hospital.

Pool locations

If your center has a pool at its location, it must be secure and safe.

Before installing an above ground or in ground pool you must check with your local government to learn of the specific regulations in place for such a facility.

Above ground pools should always have a means to lock the ladder or secure the entrance to the water. Children are curious. Children find water attractive. Children will seek ways to reach the water. The gate on the right is folded and locked when the pool is not in use. This structure would be very difficult for a child to climb.

The structure on the left is not totally protecting the pool from children. A four or five year old could easily climb over the gate or the railing and enter the pool from the deck area.

The structure on the left is very attractive but the one on the right is the safest.

Most local governments require a fence surrounding an in-ground pool.

Again, almost all require a self-closing, self-latching gate. The trend today is for a fence completely surrounding the pool as opposed to having part of a building serve as a barrier for the pool. This is why it is important for you to check with the local authorities before construction begins.

Children have been known to climb out of windows and unlock doors to enter the pool area.

The gate should never be blocked open even though this may be an easy thing to do when a group of children are using the pool. These gates have the ability to be locked. When the pool is not in use the gate should always be locked.

When you are using a pool either at your facility or a non-public pool, you are responsible for water clarity.

The PA Bathing Place Code requires that you are able to see a 6-inch-black-disc on the bottom of the deepest part of the pool when people are swimming. If you are not sure of the clarity, this is an easy test to complete for the safety of the children.

If clarity is not present, a body may be on the bottom and not visible from the deck of the pool.

Another danger is for those entering the water. If visibility is poor, the bottom may not be visible and therefore a child may misjudge the depth of the water.

If you take the children to a public pool and find conditions as described above, do not permit the children to swim. The pool should be closed until water clarity meets this standard.

Required staff-to-child ratios

These are the staff to child ratios that are required by the Department when children are swimming.

The staff assigned to meet these ratios may not be assigned any other duties when the children are at the pool. The staff should be actively engaged with watching the children in, on and around the water. Staff should not be sitting or standing together talking, but instead, the staff members should be scanning the facility and paying close attention to the people in their group.

Scanning should take place from the deck of the pool. Staff should not be in the water swimming with their assigned children.

In addition to the staff to child ratios, the Department is requiring that a certified lifeguard always be in attendance.

The certified lifeguard may not be part of the staff-to-child ratio. When attending a public pool, the pool’s lifeguard on duty may not be considered as the lifeguard watching your children. The responsibility of the lifeguard is to manage the staff assigned to the children, communicate to pool management when necessary, supervise the swimming area, and to respond as needed in the event of an emergency.

Tot pools too

The Department requires that when a child-care-facility uses a pool at their own center that water quality is maintained. Sanitizing solution, bleach, is to be used to disinfect the water. The solution should be added before any children enter the pool.

The formula from the Department’s regulation is 3/4 teaspoon of bleach for every 50-gallons of water.

Example for adding bleach to a rectangular pool at your facility.

The pool is 10-feet-by-5-feet with a depth of 1.5 feet. To determine the number of gallons of water in the pool, multiply the length x width x depth x 7.5 (number of gallons per cubic foot).

In the example, the pool holds 562.5 gallons of water. The formula is based upon 50 gallons, so you divide the total gallons in the pool by 50. You are to add .75 teaspoons per 50 gallons. The amount of disinfectant to use is 8.5 teaspoons.

The disinfectant will dissipate for any number of reasons including bather load, sun, and the amount of splashing taking place in the pool. If you notice that the water is no longer clear, the pool should be drained, filled again and disinfected.

Example for a circular pool.

If the diameter is 10 feet, the radius is 5 feet. The formula to determine the area of the pool is 3.14 times the radius squared (25). The pool has 78.5 square feet. Multiply the area by the depth. In the example, the depth is 1.5 feet.

For a circular pool, there are 5.9 gallons of water in a cubic foot. Therefore, you take 117.5 x 5.9 to determine the number of gallons in this pool. You again divide by 50 and multiply this answer by .75 to determine that you need to disinfectant this pool with 10.4 teaspoons of bleach.

Yes – you may simply use household bleach to disinfect the pool.

Water tables too

PA regulations require that a play structure using water must be drained and sanitized each day. To determine the amount of bleach to use, use the previous formula, dilute the beach in a gallon of water, and wash the surface of the structure. Wear gloves, protect your clothing, and do not allow the children in the area when using bleach.

Specifically, your role when assigned to supervise the children:

Prevent Risky Behavior:

Risky behaviors are not always covered by pool rules. Use common sense. When you see a child doing something that you feel may cause injury to the child or another child, address the action.

  • Example: You observe a child holding onto the side of the pool but sliding towards deep water. You know the child is a non-swimmer. This is risky behavior and must be addressed.
  • Example: You see a child practicing breath holding. This is risky behavior and should be addressed.

Scan – Recognize – Respond:

Your primary job is scanning. Scanning refers to using your eyes to observe the bottom of the pool, the surface and the water in between as well as the deck area of the facility. You are moving your eyes in a pattern so that you are viewing your children every 30-to-45 seconds.

If you see questionable behavior (remember that many children appear to be playing when drowning), stop and focus upon the child or children. If you believe the situation requires a response, activate your emergency action plan.

If you are going to enter the water, always alert others first.

Enforce Rules:

Know the pool rules of the facility you are using. If you are not sure of a rule, talk to the pool manager or lifeguard. When using a public facility, don’t rely upon the lifeguard to always see an action that needs to be addressed. You are responsible for the children from your child care.

Suggestion: have a set of pool rules to share with the staff.

Buddy Count:

Staff should agree that every 5-or-10 minutes all children stop their activities for a Buddy Count. Staff will determine a means to “call for” a count. When children are asked to gather for a count, the children should report to the staff member assigned to their team. The staff member ensures that all of the children assigned to their care are present. Once completed for the group, the children may continue with their activities.

Think as a child!

Deep Water:

Remember, what is deep for the child may not be deep for you. Deep water is not judged by the height of the child. If a person is standing in water that is as deep as their height, their mouth and nose are under water. Always subtract 10-12 inches from the height of a child to determine water where they may stand on the bottom with their mouth and nose clear of the water.

A child that is 4-foot tall can stand in the pool where the water depth is 3-foot. At the 4-foot depth, the water is at the top of his or her head.


Again, a relevant term. You may be very comfortable in the water and don’t mind splashing in the face. But someone else may be very much afraid of this activity. Therefore, horseplay should be closely regulated.

Slide, Board, Slope, Ledge:

A slide or slides are present at many pools. Before a child uses the slide, check the depth of the water at the bottom of the slide.

Will the child be able to stand on the bottom?

Always remind children to clear the area beneath the slide as soon as possible. Tell kids to wait at the bottom of the ladder up the slide and also to watch before they leave the top of the slide until the area at the bottom is cleared.

Children should not be permitted to use a diving board until they have demonstrated that they can swim in deep water. If you have children who qualify to use a board, always explain the rules of the diving area.

Slope refers to the area in a pool that for many people designates the difference between shallow and deep water. The bottom is sloped toward deep water. Most pools have a safety line designating this area of the pool.

A game, for example, that children like to play in the water is bobbing. You must be observant when children are bobbing on a slope. They may be fine with this bob but on the next bob they may find themselves in “deep water.”

Ledge: Some pools have a ledge three or four feet below the surface as part of the wall. Even though the water is deep, the child is able to stand with their face out because they are on the ledge. The ledge is usually only 3 or 4 inches wide so a slip may mean that they are now in deep water. Ledges are usually found in diving area.

Entrapment: Entrapment refers to a swimmer being held against a drain cover unable to move away from the suction of the pool pump. Laws require safety equipment to address this possible situation. However, as a supervisor of children, do not permit children to play on the drain cover of a pool, regardless of size. If you notice a child on a drain cover unable to move, respond immediately.

Sudden Illness:

Before taking your children swimming, you should have the medical records in hand to identify potential concerns. Staff should be made aware of these concerns and as part of your emergency action plan, you should be prepared to respond.

Example: if a child has asthma and uses an inhaler, ensure the inhaler goes to the pool with the group.


Children will play-and-play until they drop. Don’t be afraid to slow things down or even call a rest period if you observe fatigued children. Children are more likely to find themselves in trouble in the water when tired. Your preventative action may prevent an emergency response.


Children may continue to stay in the water and play even though they are cold. This is common during the early parts of June if the weather has been cold or if you are filling a pool each day with water. If you observe a child shivering or turning blue (lips), remove the child from the pool. Dry off the child and have the child put on dry clothing. Watch the child closely. If the shivering continues, seek assistance.

Muscle Cramps:

Muscle cramps may be caused by several things. Usually the cramp is in the leg. Remove the child from the water and ask the child to stretch the muscle. It may be good to have the child do some self massage on the cramp.

The muscle may cramp because it is screaming for more oxygen. Make sure that the kid is ventilating. Control the breathing with deep, relaxed breaths. Tension spikes with a cramp and often the breathing deteriorates due to the pain and screaming.

Cramps may be caused by too much physical activity. Don’t hesitate to insist upon a rest period after prolong time in the pool.

Scanning is the technique lifeguards use to observe their assigned area of a pool.

Scanning and being alert are the most important tasks for staff. Scanning leads to prevention.

Staff members should have eyes on the pool and surrounding deck areas. You should be near the edge of the pool and standing. Being elevated assists your ability to observe all areas of the pool. You want to be near the edge so that you can scan directly below you to the bottom of the pool. You should scan the bottom, the surface and the area in between. People don’t just find themselves in trouble on the surface of the water.

It is best to develop a pattern for scanning. Some people move their eyes up and down, others move right to left, and others move their eyes in sweeping circles. This way you ensure that you are watching your assigned children. Keep your eyes moving. If you observe something questionable, stop and focus for several seconds on the child. If everything appears to be okay, continue to scan. Every pool is different and changes during the day as the sun changes. Be aware of shadows on the bottom of the pool and pay close attention to corners. Also, look at play structures, pool ladders, slide and diving area, and areas of slope.

Bring sunglasses and a hat or cap. If a whistle is your means of communication, have your whistle with you at all times.

Bring sun screen. You will be in the sun on the deck of the pool – a position which will likely encourage sunburn.

Body position

When a person is in trouble in the water, they will usually move into the following position: vertical, head back trying to keep the mouth out of the water, arms at their sides. Their legs are usually not moving and their arms may be pushing down but not splashing water.

A drowning person usually is unable to yell for help. As the drowning process progresses, the body may submerge.

As you scan, you are looking for a child either moving to this position from the horizontal or a child already in this position. Focus – respond. Activate your emergency action plan. Remember, a person may move from horizontal to vertical to the description above in as little as 45 seconds.

Activate your emergency action plan.

Before taking the children swimming, the staff needs to determine their emergency action plan. When going to a public pool, talk to the manager to determine your plan of action. Each staff member must be knowledgeable of the plan and have the tools necessary to respond. For example, if a whistle is going to be used, each staff member needs to have a whistle.

Even if you are a certified lifeguard, the rule is “Reach or Throw, Don’t Go.” And even if you are going to reach or throw, alert the group that you have a situation.

If you believe you can reach the victim, always protect yourself from being pulled into the water. Lie down on the deck, don’t stand on the edge. Reach with an object and bring the child to the side of the wall where you are able to assist them in leaving the pool. Almost any object you can lift and control can be used for this rescue including clothing or a towel.

In Pennsylvania, public pools are to have a ring buoy present available for use. If you must use a throwing device, stand at the edge of the pool and throw the object past the victim. Bring the flotation device behind the victim, then in front of them, so that they are aware of the object. Pull them in slowly and assist them from the water.

Shepherd’s crook

This device should be at all public pools. The crook is attached to a reaching poll.

You may use this device for both a conscious and unconscious victim. If the victim is conscious, extend the device on the surface of the water, allow the victim to take hold of the crook, and pull the victim slowly to the wall.

If the victim is unconscious, you “hook” the victim under the armpits locking the crook in place around the chest or back and slowly bring the victim to the side of the pool.

If the victim is submerged, you may also hook the victim and bring them to the surface and the side of the pool.

older lifeguard rescue tube from D&J Sports

Rescue tube

All pool lifeguards are trained to use this piece of equipment. You may “reach” with this device. The tow line and banner gives the tube enough length that you can throw the device 10 to 12 feet from the side of the pool. If you find that you need to wade to a victim, take the tube and allow the victim to grab the end of the tube away from you. Wade back to the side of the pool keeping the victim at the other end of the tube.

Lifeguards are trained to provide a swimming rescue with the tube. Most tubes are at least 4-to-5 feet in length and may hold 2-or-3 people in addition to the lifeguard.

Lifeguard go into the water as a last resort.

Certainly, non-swimmers should not enter the water for a rescue, especially in water that may be over your head. You may consider a wading rescue but you should have an object, such as the rescue tube or a towel, for the victim to hold onto as you wade back to the pool side. Do not make physical contact with the victim – again, something even trained lifeguards are to avoid.

Safety equipment should be present at all pools, backyard or public, that allow a person to complete a rescue without making contact with a victim.

Emergency Action Plan:

When at a public pool where lifeguards are on duty, your supervisor should have a meeting with the pool management to determine how staff will communicate with the guards in the event of an emergency. All staff should be informed of this means for communication.

Buddy Count:

Establish the plan and practice this before you go to the pool with the children. Children of similar abilities should be paired together with a staff member. This will allow children assigned to a staff member to be together in the pool. Try to avoid having children of different abilities with a staff member because the children will move to different parts of the pool. A staff member should be watching their assigned children first, other children second. Insist on the count before continuing activities.

Shallow Water:

If a child appears to be in trouble in shallow water, you may consider assisting the child. But first, notify others of what is happening. Always protect yourself by taking an object with you to keep between you and the victim. Remember, the victim is in a state of “panic” and may be very strong, strong enough to pull you into the water or climb up your arm if you hold onto the child. You are the most important person present – you are able to provide assistance.


PFDs and Inflatables:

The use of water wings, inflatable toys and other items designed for water recreation cannot replace your supervision. These items are not considered lifesaving devices. PFDs must fit properly and the child should have supervised training about how to use the PFD before allowed to wear the PFD on their own.

Missing Child:

Clear the pool and scan the pool first. Move children to a safe location under supervision. In cooperation with pool management, organize a search team to move through the locker rooms, snack bar area, and other areas of a pool such as a game room or sport area.

Thunder and Lightning:

Follow the 30 second-30 minute rule. When there is less than 30 seconds between lightning and thunder, take cover. Do not return to the pool until 30 minutes has passed since that last lightning sighting or thunder sound.

Sun Protection:

Overexposure to the sun should be of concern to everyone, regardless of age, location, or skin color. However, because sunburns in childhood can result in health problems later in life, children are especially at risk. Water reflects the damaging rays of the sun, which increases your chance of sunburn. Do not burn – apply generous amounts of sunscreen with a SPF factor of at least 15. Reapply every 2 hours, even on cloudy days, and after swimming. Staff should wear protective clothing such as a long-sleeved shirt, long pants, a wide-brimmed hat and sunglasses.

Breath Holding:

Many times children will gather to see who can hold their breath the longest while underwater. Some children will attempt breath holding on their own. This activity must be avoided. Numerous emergencies and deaths have occurred because the person holding their breath may become unconscious. If the person is in water with no one to assist, an emergency will quickly follow.

Fecal Accident:

The Centers for Disease Control has strong guidelines for a fecal accident in or around a swimming pool. If your children are using a public pool, notify the management immediately. If this event occurs in a small backyard pool, drain the pool, sanitize, and refill with water and disinfectant. If you have an above-ground or in-ground pool at your facility, visit the CDC website for specific guidelines and processes to undertake in the event of a fecal accident.

Plan ahead for the pool.

Ensure training is complete, staff assignments are posted, a meeting has been scheduled with the pool management and parental permission slips have been returned. Equipment, such as a whistle, has been distributed. Practice the Buddy Count with the children before visiting the pool.

Upon your arrival, meet the staff and complete a walk through with the children. Review rules, show the children where they may or may not be in the water, and establish a meeting area for the group. Buddy Up children and staff. Reinforce the guidelines and procedures. Assign scanning positions and other duties for additional staff.

During your pre-management meeting, ask about a Swim Test. Many public pools have a swim test for children to complete before they may use certain features of the pool. Determine if you are going to permit your children to use these features. Also consider “when” will they be used. It is best to keep those using these types of features in the same staff group and that the group uses the feature at the same time. Using this method, groups will not be separated and a staff person will not be tracking children in different parts of the facility.

Enjoy the outing! Even though you have responsibilities, you can enjoy the day at the pool.


After the group returns to the center, host a post staff meeting. Review the event in detail to determine what steps may be taken to improve safety, participant enjoyment and effective operation.


Feel free to post questions and comments in the box below.


Life Rescue Tube from

The newer tubes have been developed and sold by eLifeguard.

Loved this? Spread the word

{"email":"Email address invalid","url":"Website address invalid","required":"Required field missing"}