How much of an endangered species is the American
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
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,''
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
''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
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
''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
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
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.,
Gregg Zoroya, Job wave empties lifeguard chairs Indoor
pay beats sun, sweat. , USA Today, 08-18-1999, pp 01D.
The Lifeguards? D.C., Suburbs Differ On Training And
By Jennifer Ordonez
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
"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
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,"
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
The District leaves the decision to
continue lifeguard training at its public pools up to
In the meantime, as regulators consider
tougher rules, the outcome likely will come down to
"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.
© Copyright 1998 The Washington
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