Water Safety in the National Park Service: Designate a Water Watcher - Supervision Could Save a Life

NPS Ranger helping a young child put on a properly fitted U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket
Rangers at Glen Canyon National Recreation Area instruct students on water safety measures as part of a youth kayaking program

NPS photo

The National Park Service (NPS) has partnered with Water Safety USA to promote this year’s message of “Designate a Water Watcher – Supervision Could Save a Life”.

The alliance of water safety organizations agrees that designating a water watcher when in, on, or around water can help prevent tragedy, especially during the summer months. Drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury deaths for children 1—14 years of age nationwide. Three children die every day across the United States as a result of drowning.

A water watcher is a person that takes on the role of ensuring that all children and adolescents swimming or playing in, on, or around water are continually supervised, even if they know how to swim, to prevent unintentional drownings.  In addition, children and adults should wear a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket in open, natural waters. Young children and inexperienced swimmers need to be within arm's reach of an adult at all times.

Water Safety USA recommends that an appropriate water watcher is someone who:

  • is 16 years old or older (adults preferred)
  • is alert and not under the influence of alcohol or drugs
  • has the skills, knowledge, and ability to recognize and rescue someone in distress OR can immediately alert a capable adult nearby
  • knows CPR or can alert someone nearby who knows CPR
  • has a working phone to dial 9-1-1
  • has a floating and/or reaching object that can be used in a rescue

Visitors to national parks should be aware that a water watcher is NOT a substitute for a lifeguard. Adults should choose a lifeguard-protected area where available but always designate a water watcher, as drowning can even happen in the presence of lifeguards. In many cases, drowning happens quickly and quietly. Most fatal drownings happen when there is poor or absent supervision.

For more information about the benefits of learning to swim, designating a Water Watcher, and water safety tips, visit Water Safety USA.

Swimming in National Parks

National parks include many different types of natural water such as rivers, lakes, and oceans.  These natural waters offer a wide variety of fun recreational activities including swimming, boating, surfing, fishing, and more.

Swimming in open, natural waters is very different from swimming in pools. Natural waters can change in depth unexpectedly, going from shallow-to-deep in just a few steps.  Natural waters can also have swift currents, waterfalls, cold temperatures, and underwater hazards such as trees and boulders. Distances between shorelines can also be very deceiving.  Weather can change very quickly.  Every park with natural water has set rules on swimming.  In some parks, wading or swimming is allowed and in others it is prohibited, or not allowed, because of the hazards around, on, or in the water.

Drowning continues to be a leading cause of visitor fatalities within the NPS with 400 deaths between 2007 and 2013.  Even greater is the number of near misses and water rescues performed by life guards and search and rescue teams each year.  Drownings occur for many reasons but some of the common causes are that visitors did not know how to swim, overestimated their swimming abilities, did not understand the hazards around, on, or in the water, or were not wearing life jackets.

Two girls fishing and wearing life jackets
Junior Rangers-in-Training learning how to fish at New River Gorge National River.

NPS photo

Here is what you can do to have a safe and fun adventure around, on, or in open natural water in national parks:

  • Wear a personal flotation device (PFD) - It is important to wear a properly fitted, U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD (e.g. life jacket) at all times when recreating in open natural water, even when boating. Lifeguards are not present at all national park swimming areas. Being a strong swimmer does not guarantee that you will not drown; in many cases it is this false sense of security that has placed visitors in dangerous circumstances. Search and Rescue teams may take time to reach you depending on your location. Swimming in strong currents or even treading water can tire you out quickly. A properly fitted PFD can help you float while you wait for help.
  • Watch your children – When recreating around, on, or in open water, children should always wear a properly fitted, U.S. Coast Guard approved PFD. Inflatable swimming rings and inflatable water wings are not a substitute for a life jacket. Assign a person in your family or group to be the “Water Watcher”. This person is responsible for keeping track of the children in your group when you are around, on, or in water. A moment’s distraction could quickly lead to a child drowning.
  • Learn to Swim– Get your swimming basics down. Be realistic about your swimming abilities and understand your limits, along with everyone else’s who is traveling with you. Learn about what water safety means for you, your family, and friends. Learn how to prepare yourself and others to prevent a drowning situation.
 Park sign identifying that it is illegal to swim or wade in the Potomac River
George Washington Memorial Parkway sign identifying that it is illegal to swim or wade in the Potomac River

NPS Photo

  • Check park regulations - Before you head out on your adventure, make sure you check the park website or contact the park to find out about water recreation regulations. You will quickly discover that while some parks allow swimming, others only allow activities such as boating, kayaking, paddle boarding etc. and others prohibit water recreation all together. Information on outdoor activities for each park can be found under the “Plan your Visit” menu on every park’s website at www.nps.gov
  • Check the weather forecast at the park - Check the weather forecast and look for park alerts the day of your trip to ensure that conditions are optimal for water recreation. Park alerts are found on individual park websites at www.nps.gov and at the visitor centers and ranger stations inside the park. Once at your destination, look for warning signs and flags for water conditions. Pay attention to the sky around you for changing weather conditions. What may start as a clear sky, can quickly turn into a thunderstorm with lightning and flash flooding. Learn more about weather safety and how to be weather ready!
Lifeguard sign and safety flag at Assateague Island National Seashore
Lifeguard sign and safety flag at Assateague Island National Seashore.

NPS/Jeff Clark

  • Swim in Lifeguard Areas - Some national parks have designated swimming areas where lifeguards are on duty.  Some estimates indicate that the chance of drowning at a beach protected by lifeguards can be less than one in 18 million [1]. Consider choosing to swim in a lifeguarded area if available.  Be sure to check the days and times lifeguards are on duty at the park and follow all signs.
  • Moving water is more powerful than the strongest swimmer - It is also deceptively dangerous. Do not let moving water fool you. Even wading in shallow water can pull you off your feet. Stay far enough back from moving water so that an accidental trip or slip on wet rocks will not cause you to fall into the current and be swept away.
  • Oceans, estuaries, and their tributary streams are tidal – Tides reverse about every six hours. Consult local tide tables and pay attention to tidal behavior.  Beach users, rock climbers, and cave explorers can become trapped, and potentially drown, when incoming tides flood their return to safe ground. If trapped by a flooding tide, seek higher ground and call for help.
Law enforcement on patrol in a boat
Lake Mead and U.S. Coast Guard Auxillary on patrol at Lake Mohave.

NPS Photo

  • Don’t drink or use drugs – Alcohol and drugs impact your judgement and coordination, especially if you attempt to swim and are not wearing a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket.  Operating a vessel (boat, kayak, etc.) while under the influence is illegal in the NPS.
  • If you don’t know, don’t swim – If you don’t know the regulations, if you aren’t familiar with the water or the hazards that may be present, or you don’t have a U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket, don’t attempt to swim.   Drowning only takes moments, so it’s better to be safe than sorry.

Don’t be a victim of drowning! Learn to swim, be sure to “Know Before You Go”, and wear a properly fitted, U.S. Coast Guard approved life jacket if you plan on recreating around, in, or on natural waters in the NPS.

For more information weather and water safety, see the links below:

Learn more about NOAA, weather safety, and how to be weather ready.

Learn more about boating safety.

Read an article on river and stream safety.

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[1] Branche CM, Stewart S, editors. Lifeguard effectiveness: A report of the working group. Atlanta (GA): Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, National Center for Injury Prevention and Control; 2001. Available from http://www.cdc.gov/HomeandRecreationalSafety/pubs/LifeguardReport-a.pdf