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Tips, Tutorials, and Checklists to help manage ministry risks

Floating Inflatable Fun

Water inflatables increase the risk of drowning and injury.

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Watching his youth group members enjoy a floating inflatable climbing wall last summer, a leader grew concerned. One freshman boy hadn’t made his way around to the front of the 10-foot wall with his buddies, and the youth leader couldn’t see the other side.

He said something to the lifeguard, who jumped in and found the boy trapped beneath the giant inflatable. The teenager had let go of the climbing straps on the side hidden from shore, and the current drew him underwater. The lifeguard quickly rescued the boy, but everyone wondered what would have happened if the leader hadn’t noticed him missing right away.

Water Safety Can Fall Short

The popularity of extreme sports has significantly increased in the past decade. At the same time, the definition of a great outdoor experience continues to grow. No longer are the riski­est activities restricted to zip lines and high ropes courses. Water inflatables such as blobs, climbing towers, slides, and trampolines are popping up in lakes and ponds across the country, alongside an increased risk of drowning and injury.

A close call like this one is a reminder that as water activi­ties expand, water safety sometimes falls short. With that in mind, church youth leaders need to be equipped with information that can prevent kids from getting injured or drowning on inflatable water amusements while at camp or on an outdoor excursion.

What's the Problem?

Unlike zip lines and high ropes courses, which were standardized in the 1980s, national safety standards governing the use of inflatable play equipment on the water are still being ironed out. Manufacturers include guidelines with each apparatus, but they provide only basic operational safety procedures. More in-depth regulations aren't available.

Many people have a false perception that water inflatables are soft and bouncy, and therefore safe. But collisions with other swimmers, falls, entrapment, and a number of other issues can result in various devastating injuries, including spinal cord damage and drowning. Moreover, most inflatables are a visual barrier. Lifeguards rarely have a 360-degree view of the structure they're guarding.

"The potential for serious injuries on or around water inflatables is greater than most people realize," says Jim Greer, senior risk control specialist at Brotherhood Mutual Insurance Company.

And while the frequency of injury is not as common as something like a rolled ankle in a kickball game, the poten­tial for severe injuries is greater. Water inflatables are a growing trend. If you haven't come across them yet, it's likely you will soon.

The More Eyes, the Better

Summer camp is one of the most likely places your youth group would encounter water-based inflatables. A well trained lifeguard staff is an important part of safety, but camp risk management expert Rick Braschler says church youth leaders also play an important role when it comes to keeping kids safe in the water. As the director of risk management at Kanakuk Kamps in Missouri, Braschler oversees more than 14,000 staff and 10,000 campers each year.

"Youth leaders can be highly influential when it comes to keeping campers safe on the waterfront," Braschler says, "but they are usually less familiar with all the risks because they only participate for a few weeks out of the year, and then go back home."

Lifeguards are responsible for people they don't know well and are trained to look for trouble across large areas. By watching their own kids on the water, youth leaders can assist lifeguards and help decrease the chance of a struggling swimmer going unnoticed.

The advantages of alert youth leaders include:

  • Supervising smaller sets of swimmers
  • Knowing group members by sight and name
  • Understanding swimmers' individual personalities

In addition, young people are less likely to misbehave under direct supervision from their own church leaders.

Research Activities in Advance

Before leaders take a youth group to camp or a swimming destination, it's a good idea to find out what type of water activities will be provided and educate the group on how to participate safely. Every camp or recreational area offers different water amusements, but many of the same safety principles apply. Youth leaders should ask the supervisor of the camp or recreational area for safety instructions.

Speak Up about Safety

Here are a few questions leaders can ask about any water­ based inflatables they encounter. Youth leaders can also look for the information online or contact a company that sells a particular type of water amusement.

Question 1: Is the operator following the manufacturer's guidelines?

The manufacturer's guidelines on set up and use are safety requirements that anyone using an inflatable should follow. Often, such guidelines are printed on the structure. If you're at the waterfront with your students and something doesn't look right, speak up. One youth leader alerted camp staff to a faulty anchor when he noticed an inflatable water slide drifting into a shallow part of the lake.

Things to look for:

  • Proper anchoring: Is the structure being moved around too much by either water or wind?
  • Suitable water depth: Is there any possibility that the inflatable is anchored too shallow or too deep?
  • Appropriately marked areas: Is there any risk of a collision from another activity?
  • Unnecessary risks: Are platforms too high? Are inflatables being used for anything other than their intended purpose?

Question 2: Is the inflatable properly maintained?

Water inflatables require regular inspections, considering the weather conditions a given region may experience. Youth leaders should notify a camp director or site manager if they suspect improper storage or maintenance.

"The maintenance of a water inflatable is just as important as supervising the activity on it," Greer says.

For example, one camp decided to leave its inflatable trampoline in the water despite the threat of evening thunderstorms.The next day, the camp allowed kids to jump on it without inspecting the trampoline for damage. Logs and debris were trapped underneath by storm currents and eventually tore through the mate­rial while campers were jumping.

Question 3: What else should I look for?

Most camps and recreational areas do a great job at training their full-time and part-time staff, but not all are aware of the increased risk water inflatables pose to exhausted or inexperienced swimmers. As you send your students to free time, keep in mind:

  • Camp means late nights. Your campers may be staying up late and waking up early. Have you considered requiring any period of rest throughout the day?

  • Experience levels vary. Not all people are good swimmers. Determine if the camp or recreational area requires a swim test or has any policies on dealing with unskilled swimmers.

  • Young people like risks. Don't be afraid to rein in the daredevil. Just because students are jumping off the back of the slide doesn't mean you should allow them to continue. Preparation and supervision help keep swimmers safe, so they go home with memories of a carefree day.