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Monday, June 2, 2014

Where Are the Lifeguards? Shortage Threatens American Pool Openings



I used to lifeguard in the summers during my high school days at nearby Lake Margaret in my hometown of Lucasville, Ohio. The lake was the best home away from home a young man could ever have. Peggy Campbell, who had already retired from the telephone company, owned the lake, and she became a role model as one of the most industrious, kind, and inspiring individuals in my life. A small yet powerful dynamo, she led the way with an ethic that helped the workers form a wonderful, positive circle of friends. I love Peggy, and I miss her so much. Lifeguarding and working other duties at the lake was so rewarding.

Of course, to lifeguard, I had to take classes for certification, but the training was enjoyable and proved very valuable as first aid basics and CPR were part of the class. I still remember most of the skills taught those many years ago.

The work hours at the lake were long -- we switched guarding duties often, but the lake opened at 12:00 noon and closed at dark every day. We typically had a couple of weekdays off every week, and Peggy worked our schedules around other necessary activities.

What was not to love about lifeguarding? Well, I guess there were a few duties like bath house cleanup and trash collection at the end of the day that seemed tedious, but consider the great benefits of the job: girls in bikinis, swimming, boating, fishing, food, friends, and did I mention -- girls in bikinis?

Now, in my day, pay was $1.00 an hour or less, but since I was a teen still living at home, this put a constant $30.00 or so in my pocket for gas, entertainment, and other expenditures. I had no home expenses, so from age 14-18, I had more "blow" money than at any other time in my life. Besides, what teenager wouldn't want to sleep late and get up to be at Lake Margaret most every day? The lake was the center of family, and especially teen, attraction. As we used to say in the 60s, it was "where the action is."

 Lake Margaret "Family"

Well, believe it or not, there is a shortage of lifeguards across the nation. I am flabbergasted. Consider these stories from recent headlines.

* Huntington and Charleston, West Virginia
 
Huntington city pools are opening later and later each year because there are no lifeguards to work them. Huntington's A.D. Lewis Community Center Pool will stay empty until the city can find a lifeguard for it. Even though it's freshly painted and ready to go, a certified lifeguard is the only person there for the pool's safety.

However, the lifeguard shortage isn't limited to Huntington. The Cato Park Pool in Charleston opened weeks later than usual because of the same problem.

The head lifeguard there says the job is often a filler job for teenagers, which can make them a last priority. "When you move on with you life, you find a career or sometimes people want to work jobs that are inside or just something that will prepare them for when they grown up," said one city official.

Several pools in the region are in need of lifeguards. In fact, the city of Huntington is offering to pay for those lifeguard's certification to work at the A.D. Lewis Community Center.

* Syracuse, New York

With one month to go before city pools open, Syracuse officials say they still need to hire 53 lifeguards - or about 40 percent of the full staff needed to open all eight outdoor pools.

To boost the recruiting effort, the parks department has increased the starting lifeguard salary to $9.50 an hour from about $8.15 last year. Even so, the city pays less than state and county parks, said Baye Muhammad, parks commissioner.

If the parks department cannot hire its full complement of 130 lifeguards, city officials might have to reduce the number of pools that open.

* Oklahoma City, Oklahoma

Officials said YMCA locations across the city are facing a lifeguard shortage.

Right now, the organization is offering an incentive for you to sign on. If you are hired, the Y will reimburse you for the cost of your certification course, so it won’t cost you anything in the end.
Life guards must be at least 16 and pay starts at $7.99 per hour.

* Chico, California

For the first time in potentially its history, Sycamore Pool will not have lifeguards on duty for the start of the summer season.

Memorial Day weekend is the standard starting date for the seasonal lifeguards who work through Labor Day, but a late start to recruitment has curtailed the number of applicants and the city does not have enough for safe staffing, said Public Works Director Ruben Martinez.

The city usually hires 16 people but has not yet made any official hires, though five people are in the hiring process and applications of several others are under review.

"We are all disappointed with this turn in events," Martinez said. "We have a very nice pool (of applicants) and are looking to add to that pool."

While lifeguards will not be present, Sycamore Pool will be cleaned and filled for this weekend and be available for swimming, as it always is regardless of lifeguards' presence.

* Sierra Vista, Arizona

Once the prototypical summer job for high-schoolers, being a lifeguard isn’t as cool as it used to be, at least judging by how hard positions at the Cove can be to fill.

As a result, the Cove is set to close on Mondays through the summer, starting when summer hours begin on May 25 and extending through Aug. 3. The Cove is typically slowest on Mondays over the summer, while open swim will again be available on Sundays until Fall hours resume.

“There seems to be a trend that it’s become more difficult to get lifeguards through the door than it was,” said Patrick Cahir, aquatics coordinator at the Cove.
 
* Milwaukee, Wisconsin 
 
Fond du Lac parks says hold on, they don't have enough lifeguards right now to safely staff this pool and their other one. So the rush is on to find qualified candidates.

"The challenge for us is obviously just finding the staff. We keep college kids maybe three, maybe four years," said Renee Wagner, Fond du Lac recreation and aquatic center supervisor.
But Renee Wagner's having less lifeguards stick around for four years, possibly because they don't want to deal with a recent change. "Red Cross made a change where the certifications went to two years.  So I think that is making a difference for some of these kids. If it's their last year in college, do they really wanna recertify?" questioned Wagner.
After they're hired, life guards take a 40 hour training class on rescues and CPR and they learn areas of the pool to pay close attention to, like the drop slides.

* Everywhere, U.S.A.

Other shortages have popped up in Minneapolis, suburban Philadelphia, Austin, Texas, and numerous small towns nationwide, said Mike Rogers in Rockledge, Fla., who publishes the LifeguardTimes.com, a trade publication.

Sitting like indolent kings and queens atop poolside thrones, teens once clamored to spend summers guarding swimmers. But as training demands rose — the American Red Cross requires at least 25 hours — and as teens were lured by internships and sports camps, the nation’s lifeguard shortage crept up like an incoming tide.

In addition, cutbacks in education left many physical education programs without swim classes, so not as many youngsters qualify even to take the training.


No Lifeguards?

The Red Cross is begging people to become certified lifeguards. In my wildest dreams, I cannot imagine that throngs of young people are not rushing to become certified to lifeguard and earn spending money. In my view, lifeguarding is a great job.

Is this a sign of the "indoor" generation and its dedication to electronic activities? Does it also speak to the fear of overexposure to the sun and skin cancer? Are young people expecting too much pay for first-time employment opportunities? Or, do they just believe lifeguarding would not allow them to "free up" enough vacation time during summer break?

Whatever the reason, this shortage of guards is distressing to me. It represents another sign of declining socialization and the loss of traditional recreation. At one time, swimming centers -- community pools, public lakes -- were such wonderful places where friendships began and blossomed. I feel so fortunate to have my Lake Margaret experiences. They continue to fill my memory with colorful, happy images. In fact, many rites of passage involved events at the lake. Without my experience as a lifeguard, my life would be so much more lacking of loving reminisces.

And, did I mention girls in bikinis?


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