How much of an endangered species is the American lifeguard?

B.J. Fisher of the American Lifeguard Association is offering $1,000 for a week of pool duty in the East.

In the West, lifeguard pickings were so slim in Huntington Beach, Calif. -- the heart of surfin' USA -- that seven wannabes had to be rescued during tryouts.

''They were getting in over their heads, literally,'' lifeguard Lt. Greg Crow says.

Connecticut beaches are poaching on one another's dwindling lifeguard stocks. State beach officials accuse the midcoastal township of Clinton, suffering its own shortage, of hiring two state lifeguards right off the sand for an additional $1.50 an hour. The two left their state jobs before their shift was over.

''It was bad, bad blood,'' says state beach director Brandt Thomas, who has posted swim-at-your-own-risk signs on now-unprotected state beaches.

''Listen, sometimes you have to do what you have to do,'' says Jim McCusker, first selectman for Clinton, where officials deny certain specifics of what happened but acknowledge hiring two state guards.

If that wasn't enough, the lifeguard lovelies on Baywatch are watching their ratings slip beneath the waves. They're taking the show to Hawaii.

Whither the American lifeguard?

In some ways, the lifeguard problem is as predictable as the summer solstice, and excuses for the scarcity range from a growing fear of skin cancer to concerns about contracting a disease while performing mouth-to-mouth resuscitation.

Experts say this year's shortage is especially pronounced because of the economy. Life is sweet. Unemployment is at rock bottom (4.3% in July). Young men and women have a bevy of better-paying, less strenuous, more career-nurturing job choices for the summer.

But the shortage also may reflect the passing of an iconic American vocation: the summer heroes who last year performed 63,000 rescues on American beaches and traditionally were viewed as among the ultimate professional expressions of selflessness.

''To me, the image of being called to respond to someone in mortal danger and being able to pluck them from the maw of death, as it were, was something that attracted me tremendously,'' says Chris Brewster, San Diego's chief lifeguard and a 20-year veteran.

Whatever the reason, the shortage of lifeguards at the nation's pools, water parks and beaches is about to get worse during the final week of the summer travel season -- Aug. 28 to Sept. 6 -- when students working as lifeguards quit early and head back to school.

Companies staffing commercial pools will be in a frenzied search for certified replacements, and some may surreptitiously settle for less, says Fisher. He's director of the American Lifeguard Association in Vienna, Va., which trains and places lifeguards in the Washington- Baltimore area.

''Regrettably, there are employers who are going to throw a T-shirt on somebody and call them a lifeguard,'' Fisher says.

That's why he's running newspaper ads offering $1,000 to qualified candidates willing to work that week.

Lifeguard pay ranges from barely above the $5.15 minimum wage at community pools to just over $10 an hour for jobs on surf-pounded ocean coasts, where real experience and physical agility are baseline requirements. McCusker, in Clinton, complains that there are summer painting jobs posted on telephone poles that pay more -- $13 an hour.

''It's the affluence that we have today in America,'' says Adolf Kiefer, dean of American swimming and a 1936 Olympic gold medalist. He is encouraging through his Chicago aquatics business greater ''esprit de corps'' in lifeguarding. ''There's more money, and the kids have too many other activities.''

Further complicating the issue is the explosion in aquatic centers beyond the neighborhood swimming hole: therapeutic pools, water slides, artificial wave beaches and splash parks. The number of water amusement centers in America has more than doubled in the past five years to exceed 900, says Dave Bruschi, director of the World Waterpark Association. They require large staffs and compete with cities for talent.

''It's, like, real cool being a lifeguard at (Six Flags) Hurricane Harbor vs. being a Dallas city pool lifeguard,'' says Andrea Hawkins, a spokeswoman for the Dallas Park and Recreation Department, which struggles to staff 22 pools.

Dallas closes its pools each year in early August, in part because the department knows it'll run out of lifeguards.

In Huntington Beach, after those dismal tryouts in March, the city wound up short 10 to 12 lifeguards. As summer began, staff worked 70-hour weeks to pick up the slack, until local media got wind and a Red Cross chapter joined Baywatch cast members in a ''Lifeguards Wanted'' community event in Santa Monica. A first-ever second lifeguard tryout in June yielded a better crop of candidates and filled empty slots on Huntington Beach.

But less glamorous locales don't have the luxury of a Baywatch star.

Detroit, laboring under a yearly shortage of lifeguards for its 16 pools and a beach, delayed openings until mid-June and then had less than half the necessary guards on duty. With gradual hires through the season, it's now at 60% staffing, says Loren Jackson, the city superintendent of recreation. Pool sections remain closed and operational hours staggered, all during a particularly scorching summer.

''I think (city residents) understand that we're doing the best we can,'' Jackson says.

West Palm Beach, Fla., filled about half the slots for its public pool, adding personnel only when area lifeguards agreed to work more that one job. Super Splash USA, a municipal water park in Kansas City, Mo., is using concession and maintenance personnel to staff some stations on its water slides. ''We're just roughing it out to the end (of the season),'' manager Jennifer Jackson says.

Cape Cod National Seashore barely hired the minimum this year and, in some cases, employed candidates ''we might have backed off on if we had had more applicants,'' says Gary Carter, supervisory park ranger. Assateague Island, Va., has had a vacancy all season.

And even ''paradise,'' as park superintendent Russell Berry calls his duty station at Virgin Islands National Park, can't lure enough applicants to fill four openings.

To fight back, places such as Dallas are recruiting more than six months before summer. Boston has a paid-intern program that begins teaching lifeguard skills to kids at age 14 (most places certify at age 15 or 16). The American Red Cross has a 1-year-old program, Guard Start, that introduces children to lifeguarding at age 11.

Cincinnati, which, with 46 municipal pools, boasts more per capita than any other American city, has year-round training courses and raised its lifeguard wages by more than $4 an hour over the past three years. City pools are fully staffed.

''It's a major problem,'' city recreation director Wayne Bain says. ''It's not one that we can sit back and say, 'Well, we're going to have plenty of lifeguards next year.' ''

Still, at the heart of the shortage may be the fading appeal of the time-honored profession of standing watch over swimmers from that vaunted tower.

''Rather than being this bronzed athlete out there in the outdoors, maybe the role model is more being a computer person and having your own dot-com business,'' says Huntington Beach lifeguard Crow, a 22- year veteran. ''The hero roles have kind of changed a bit.''

Copyright 1999, USA Today, a division of Gannett Co., Inc.

Gregg Zoroya, Job wave empties lifeguard chairs Indoor pay beats sun, sweat. , USA Today, 08-18-1999, pp 01D.


Washington Post

Who's Watching The Lifeguards? D.C., Suburbs Differ On Training And Staffing Regulations

By Jennifer Ordonez
Staff Writer
July 8, 1997; Page B01

When 12-year-old Patrick Edwards drowned last month at the bottom of a busy Northeast Washington swimming pool in the presence of two lifeguards, District officials said they did not need new pool lifeguard regulations -- none of which have been updated in 16 years.

"When it ain't broke, don't fix it," said Benjamin McCottry, spokesman for the D.C. Department of Parks and Recreation, which has jurisdiction over 40 of the 220 pools regulated by the city. "Our record has been exemplary."

But other pool-safety regulators throughout the Washington area have repeatedly revised safety codes for thousands of public and semipublic pools because the rules on certification, training and inspection were deemed to be outdated or inadequate. These rules affect both publicly operated pools and semipublic facilities at hotels, apartment houses and swim clubs.

Some suburban jurisdictions have steadily increased their demands that lifeguards take more breaks, work with more assistance when they are in their guard chairs and learn more first aid.

Fairfax County wants to raise the minimum number of lifeguards at all pools from one to two. Maryland will require all pools to have at least one lifeguard per 50 bathers beginning in February, the first time the state has ever adopted a formula. Prince William County recently contracted with a private firm to train its public pool lifeguards and periodically monitor them at work -- sometimes with video recorders.

Continual evaluation should be the norm, some safety regulators say. "I'm sure at the time our codes were :first: written, having any swimming pool codes at all was a big step," said James Armstrong, an environmental health supervisor with the Fairfax County Health Department. "But there have been many, many changes in what we know about lifesaving and in the water facilities themselves."

Multi-pool facilities with high diving boards and water slides have become far more common. Much has been learned about the hazards that may interfere with lifeguards' performance, and lifesaving techniques have become more demanding.

As a result of those trends, District lifeguard rules could become a political issue. "It's time to look at the regulations. If they are outdated, as a member of the ward where Patrick Edwards was killed I'm going to get some legislation passed on that," said Harry Thomas Sr. (D-Ward 5), who met last week with tenants of the apartment house where Patrick drowned.

A spokesman with the D.C. Department of Consumer and Regulatory Affairs, which sets the codes for all pools in the city, could not say when the rules were last changed or reviewed. Critics say the city should review its codes, which are based on 1981 recommendations by the American Public Health Association.

"I don't see the American Public Health Association guidelines still in effect: anywhere but in D.C.," said Lawrence Newell, an Ashburn safety consultant.

The District's approximately 180 semipublic pools are inspected for compliance with safety and operational standards, including lifeguard certification, about once a year. In contrast, officials in Fairfax, Prince William and Montgomery counties say their pools are inspected at least three times a year.

"Since 1981, the District of Columbia health department has been so under-funded that they've done very, very little inspection," said Bernard J. Fischer, director of the American Lifeguard Association, a private group that certifies lifeguards.

But Newell cautions that it's difficult to say how many inspections are enough. "Much depends on needs, the situation, how many swimmers, etc. Some of the states with the most stringent safety guidelines, like Florida, are also the ones with the most drownings," he said.

Stricter standards do not come without challenges -- and one is finding people willing to do the work at relatively low wages. Once considered the ultimate summer job, lifeguarding has lost some of its luster as liability concerns create more pressure, training requirements become more rigid and college students show more interest in career-oriented summer work.

With hourly wages ranging from $5 to $8, many potential lifeguards think twice about taking a job that exposes them to life-and-death situations, said the American Lifeguard Association's Fischer.

"We had one company that had 110 vacant positions this year," Fischer said.

Patrick Edwards knew how to swim when he went to the Brookland Manors Apartments on June 22. Friends of the tall, skinny seventh-grader became worried after noticing a long, dark shape at the bottom of the pool. They pointed it out to the two lifeguards, who reportedly replied that it was a large patch of dirt and did not investigate.

Witnesses said the lifeguards were in street clothing and tennis shoes and were socializing with bathers. Patrick's friends pulled his body out of the water, and he allegedly did not receive cardiopulmonary resuscitation until paramedics arrived.

The lifeguards were employees of Seahorse Pool Service Inc., the firm hired by Edgewood Management Co., which manages Brookland Manors. Seahorse has denied the lifeguards were negligent.

Mark R. Thompson, a lawyer suing Seahorse in a case involving a teenage girl who nearly drowned in 1995 at a Washington motel pool, says defendants are trying to shift responsibility as much as possible. "Apartment management, private companies, lifeguards, everybody wants to pass the buck," Thompson said. "If these are attended pools, this should not happen."

Some experts say lax management at pools and by private companies is why codes need to be reviewed often, especially as more hotels and residential complexes turn to contractors for lifeguard services.

Loose regulation of private firms invites problems, Newell said. "Generally, if you have a current lifeguarding card, they accept the card at face value. Whether they check skills or give pre-service training varies tremendously."

Centennial Pools, of Laurel, which provides lifeguards to 70 pools, has hired a company to audit its workers' performance. Video surveillance and frequent testing have been effective, said Centennial President Mike Kinloch.

This fall, Fairfax County voters will decide in a referendum whether to adopt tougher rules, such as increasing the number of lifeguards at each of the 580 public and semipublic pools from one to two. The county also would prohibit lifeguards from listening to loud music, performing pool chores or engaging in casual conversation while in the lifeguard chair.

Armstrong, the Fairfax health official, thinks the anticipated resistance from owners of smaller semipublic pools should not dissuade voters from adopting what he believes are common-sense measures.

"One person covering an entire six-hour shift is too much when you're asking them to stay alert and focused in the hot sun," he said.

In April, Prince William County's public pools began requiring all new lifeguards to take an in-house certification course. In Montgomery County, public pool lifeguards undergo training every three months.

The District leaves the decision to continue lifeguard training at its public pools up to individual managers.

In the meantime, as regulators consider tougher rules, the outcome likely will come down to cost.

"The bottom line is always money. It costs more to have more lifeguards," said Fischer, who said the only way to protect the public is through continual change. "If you have a set of codes that haven't been updated in five years, they're outdated. Period."

© Copyright 1998 The Washington Post Company


Job wave empties lifeguard chairs Indoor pay beats sun, sweat. , USA Today, 08-18-1999
Who's Watching The Lifeguards? D.C., Suburbs Differ On Training And Staffing Regulations, Washington Post, July 8, 1997

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