How the Triangle is coping with a shortage of national lifeguards

Last Tuesday, aqua blue light spills over the tiled walls of the Pullen Aquatic Centeris home to an Olympic size swimming pool and more than a dozen lifeguards in training.

The teenagers, mostly wearing casual shorts and t-shirts, await their chance to dive in and practice the skills they’ve learned in a week-long training course. These skills include lifting their partners out of the water, performing CPR using a rescue mask, and using backboards designed to stabilize those with neck injuries.

“If you get lifted, it’s really tough because if some of your group can’t lift you properly, you’re going to drown,” says 16-year-old Jackson Jones-Selater, mocking partner Jaiden Phillips, also 16 years old. .

“I’ve been partnered with him all week, had to get him out of the water,” Phillips says, pointing to Jones-Selater’s six-foot frame. The teenager must carry at least 30 pounds. “You are so heavy. I’m not saying anything bad, you’re just heavy.

Learning lifeguard skills has been challenging at times, teens agree, but also fun.

“You have to trust the people you work with,” says 15-year-old Olivia Poteat. “You practice saving someone who is drowning, so you have to lie face down in the water and just believe they’re going to catch you. The first day, that’s what we did. I had no idea who anyone was, but I’ve made friends now.

The group of teenage candidates, who will soon literally be saviors, is also a saving grace for Ken Hisler, deputy director of the Raleigh Department of Parks, Recreation and Cultural Resources. Raleigh, like cities nationwide, is struggling to find lifeguards for its pools — four open year-round and four typically open from Memorial Day in late May to Labor Day in early September.

A shortage of national lifeguards, however, has forced Raleigh officials to close summer pools this year until mid-June. Even now, only two of the four summer pools are open, and only on weekends. At year-round pools, staff have had to close sections, cut hours and limit swim lessons.

City officials have prioritized opening the Biltmore and Longview pools, both located in low-income neighborhoods in southeast Raleigh. Unlike some wealthier, whiter parts of town, there aren’t many private neighborhood pools in the area for families. Swimming pools are an important resource for active children and adults, Hisler says.

“When we looked at our seasonal operations, our priorities were to look at communities that may not have access to a pool,” says Hisler. “Our goal was, ‘How can we make sure that communities that have no other resource are prioritized?’ That’s why Longview opened first, [because] we are the community pool in this [neighborhood].”

Raleigh’s pools serve four different groups, Hisler says: families and children who use the pools for recreation, people who take water safety and swimming lessons, people who swim regularly for exercise, and third party groups like swim teams. For now, Hisler is trying to make sure people can use summer pools for recreation and find swimming lessons at facilities that are open year-round.

“Our first responsibility is to serve the public,” says Hisler. “For now, what we’ve tried to do is make sure we can maintain [opportunities at year-round pools]. We have managed to balance these four communities to some extent.

Why is there a shortage of lifeguards?

The shortage of lifeguards is not a new problem. Staffing public pools and beaches has been a problem for 20 years, says Bernard Fisher, director of the American Lifeguard Association.

A drop in the number of interested applicants combined with a spike in the construction of new public swimming pools created the perfect storm. The ratio of lifeguards to pools has become lopsided, Fisher says. The increased development has also created more beachfront area for fewer lifeguards to patrol.

The situation was bad, but not unmanageable, says Fisher. At least until the coronavirus pandemic.

“We [usually] attract approximately 300,000 new lifeguard candidates each year. The first year of the pandemic, we hardly trained anyone,” says Fisher. “In addition, the certification is valid for two years. So the people who had their certifications two years before the pandemic, they had to come and renew them… but we missed them.

The pandemic has created a reserve in the number of new lifeguards coming through the training pipeline, so now, as authorities try to fully reopen swimming pools, there is a severe shortage of workers.

“We didn’t have as many requests [during the pandemic]said Hisler. “Therefore, there was not as much push [for workers]. There just weren’t as many people coming to the pools.

“[The pools] that have opened … we won’t be able to keep them all open until Labor Day because we rely heavily on young people who have to go back to school, ”says Fisher.

Hisler anticipates a more severe shortage of lifeguards in August as high school and college students return to school, he says. Staffing has always been an issue in the first and last weeks of summer. One possible solution is to hire retirees, according to Fisher.

“They go downhill and they swim lengths for fitness and health. They appreciate it. They love the community and want to help,” says Fisher. “We just need to let them know that there is no age limit for coming to train and help your community pool.”

On Fisher’s advice, Hisler and other Raleigh officials are trying to reach working adults and retirees, many of whom come to the pool every day and have schedules that allow them to work during the day. City staff are also considering offering retention bonuses to lifeguards who stay through Labor Day, Hisler says.

Another problem Raleigh faces is obtaining qualified candidates. The city is now seeing more applicants for lifeguard positions, but not everyone who applies can pass the swimming assessment, Hisler says.

“Even if someone wants to become a lifeguard, they have to be able to meet the certification requirements, and that’s not something everyone is capable of,” he says. “Hiring lifeguards across the country has been difficult for a lot of us because it’s a bit more physically demanding than a lot of part-time jobs.”

One solution to this problem may be to hire lifeguards with shallow-water certifications, which are easier to obtain than deep-water certifications, Fisher says. Shallow water lifeguards cannot monitor deep dive areas, but can monitor paddling pools, shallow water areas and five-foot recovery lanes, freeing up more experienced lifeguards to monitor the deep end .

Fisher adds that cities should also do their best to keep pools open for swimming lessons and lifeguard training, which creates better swimmers and more lifeguards.

And now?

The good news is that Raleigh officials have been able to hire more lifeguards in recent weeks. Eighteen lifeguards have been hired since June, and 19 more have recently graduated and are in the process of being recruited. To open all of the city’s pools full-time, officials need to hire about 50 additional lifeguards, according to Hisler. Recent media coverage of the crisis has helped spread the word, he says.

“There have been a lot of parents recently… [who will] look at their children and say, “You know how to swim, you can meet these requirements. Let’s see if we can help. It was super exciting,” says Hisler. “Another community member recognized that his local pool was going to be affected and went out and found some teenagers he already had a relationship with. They said, “Let’s go to the job fair and submit our applications, because we know that if we can be guards, it helps open up our community pool.”

At least one teenager has applied for a lifeguard position this month due to recent media coverage. Addie Coral, 15, says she heard about the job opportunity through WRAL and her aunt encouraged her to apply.

“Actually, I’ve worked before, I’ve worked a bit in a general store. But I felt like it would be a fun job to do,” says Coral.

Plus, “it was a better salary than what I was getting,” she says. “When my brother started doing rescue, it was like $7.25.”

Raising the hourly wage is another strategy used by Raleigh officials to try to recruit new lifeguards, Hisler says. Raleigh increased starting pay for lifeguards from $9 an hour to $13 an hour. More experienced rescuers can earn up to $15 per hour.

The strategy seems to be working. Phillips and Jones-Selater each said the higher salary was one of the reasons they decided to apply. Jones-Selater plans to use the money he earns this summer to buy three new rolls of leather, he says. One of his hobbies is making leather bags and wallets.

If city officials are able to hire enough lifeguards, they plan to open the Johnson Lake pool next, Hisler says. They also want to add weekday hours in Biltmore and Longview as temperatures climb into the 90s.

“Thirty minutes after the opening [Longview]there were already children in the pool, and they were jumping [around]. To me, that’s why we do what we do,” says Hisler.

“There’s nothing better in the summer than when family and friends have the opportunity to just get together. This is what swimming pools create. They are community gathering spaces. [They] break down barriers. It’s just an opportunity for kids to be kids… for neighbors to connect in a relaxed atmosphere, maybe meet someone new.

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