Op-ed: Increased lifeguard presence will keep post-pandemic pools and beaches safe
By Karen Cohn and William D. Ramos
We are midway through summer and the impact of the nationwide lifeguard shortage has become abundantly clear. In cities and towns in several states from Maine to California, pools, and beaches are either closed or have reduced operating hours.
Lifeguards face a dilemma: pools and beaches are more crowded with families trying to cram in as much swimming time as possible; coupled with kids whose swimming skills are not as well developed as usual because they weren’t able to take swimming lessons during the pandemic. Swimmers of all ages are also exploring new and unfamiliar water spaces, such as lakes and oceans, as many community facilities remain closed or have reduced hours of operation.
We are already seeing an increase in the drowning rate. In Florida, child drownings are on track to reach a 10-year high. In the Great Lakes, more people have drowned in 2021 than by this time last year. In Arizona, Minnesota, Washington, and California, the drowning rates are also up . While drownings traditionally spike midsummer when people flock to the water to cool off during soaring temperatures, these trends are a sign of trouble, especially when coupled with the lifeguard shortage.
One way to fix the lifeguard shortage: Professionalize lifeguarding and aquatics management so that there is better training, a greater focus on safety and preparation, and concrete expectations for their performance.
What most people don’t realize is that lifeguarding is not an empty-headed profession built for camera-ready suntans and blonde highlights. Lifeguards play a key role in ensuring a safe environment for swimmers at pools and public beaches. Most drownings are preventable through a variety of strategies, one of which is, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention, to “provide lifeguards in public areas where people are known to swim and to encourage people to swim in those protected areas.” Studies have shown that the fewest drownings occur when trained lifeguards are present.
The CDC also notes that, “lifeguards add to the cost savings in emergency medical care and long-term hospital treatment involving cases of near-drowning and alleviate emotional trauma and social costs to family and friends.”
Lifeguarding is more than being a proficient swimmer. It requires extra training to perform water rescues safely, spot danger signs, give first aid, administer CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), and use an automated external defibrillator when needed.
Lifeguard shortages can be avoided. We need to make lifeguarding appealing to more than teenagers and 20-somethings. Seattle and Lawrence, Kansas have hired retirees as lifeguards Other potential recruits include master swimmers and parents of competitive swimmers.
Making lifeguard certification the first step in a career in recreation and aquatics management would open up career opportunities for some young people. The job provides training that benefits future employment whether it’s as a lifeguard, water safety instructor, aquatics facility manager, Emergency Medical Technician (EMT), nurse, or even a physician. It can also be lucrative. While some cities have upped the pay to $15/hour, some private clubs are paying lifeguards $23/hour. And, in California, some lifeguards make more than $200,000 annually.
We need to create a reliable network of aquatic professionals to manage lifeguards. Just as there are college-level courses for students interested in hotel management, there could and should be aquatics management courses that would give pool managers an extra layer of know-how, whether it’s developing new drowning prevention techniques, or creating culturally competent water instruction, as well as improving how they manage lifeguards. Ball State University is one of a handful of schools with aquatics majors in the country. But the vast majority of aquatics managers and lifeguards learn on the job at summer camps, recreation facilities, and city parks departments.
Formalized training would improve the field. Lifeguards, who can be as young as 16 years old, need to know the location of rescue equipment and the emergency action plan. We know from experience — whether in hiring lifeguards for facilities or watching our own children or friends work at area pools — that not all lifeguards get this support, perhaps because their supervisors didn’t receive adequate training or they’re being expected to complete other tasks when their total focus should be on the water.
Why is this training crucial? Because drowning is fast and silent. It can happen in as little as 20 to 60 seconds and doesn’t always look like we would expect. It is also the leading cause of unintentional death among children one to four years old, surpassed only by birth defects. For children under five years of age, 87% of drowning fatalities take place in home pools or hot tubs.
Drowning is one of the most easily preventable unintentional deaths with the help of adult supervision, barriers, swimming instruction, and devices like Coast Guard-approved life jackets.
Well-trained, properly compensated lifeguards are a crucial part of the process of cultivating completely safe aquatic experiences. It’s only fitting that we create attractive career paths for the most fundamental jobs in water safety to ensure a fun and safe time in the water for generations to come.
See the story in the Chicago Tribune