Manager Ashley Ford strode the perimeter of one of Indianapolis’ five open swimming pools, monitoring kids as they jumped off a diving board or careened into the water from a curved slide. The water was surrounded by four tall lifeguards who stood at attention from high-heeled chairs.
With a dozen of the city’s pools shuttered due to a lifeguard shortage, families sometimes line up more than an hour before the one at Frederick Douglass Park opens, Ford said. It can be full for many days.
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The COVID-19 pandemic brought about a national shortage of lifeguards, which has forced communities like Indianapolis to reduce the hours and pools. Swimming areas in other parts of the United States are left without attendants.
That’s left some Americans with fewer or riskier options, even as a significant part of the nation endures a second heat wave in as many weeks. Experts in public health say that lifeguards reduce the chance of drowning.
“That’s my biggest thing, is making everybody safe,”Ford stated.
The American Lifeguard Association says that the shortage has an impact on one-third U.S. swimming pools. Bernard J. Fisher, the director for safety and health, at the association, believes that this will grow to about half of all pool by August, when many teens return to school.
“It is a disaster,”Fisher said.
Summer shortages aren’t unusual, but U.S. pools are also dealing with the fallout from earlier in the pandemic, when they closed and lifeguard certification stopped, Fisher said. While starting salaries are lower than many other jobs in the country, cities like New York and Chicago have been increasing incentives.
Indy Parks and Recreation employs 100 lifeguards this year, a number that would normally be double, according to Ford. Ford has been with the agency for over 20 years. In Indianapolis, even though lifeguards are present at all the pools from nearby pools to bulk them up, they still have to close each day for an hour for cleaning and lunch.
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Fisher stated that young people might swim in areas without lifeguards if a pool at their local community is closed. This can lead to more drownings which are more common in communities of color. The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention found that Americans aged under 29 are 1.5x more likely to drown than those of similar age in the United States.
About 330,000 people enroll the American Red Cross’ lifeguarding course annually. The number of people who enroll in the American Red Cross’ lifeguarding course has decreased due to many pool closings, however, Jenelle Eli, the senior director for media relations, stated that the figure is on the rise and was made available to The Associated Press.
Indy Parks demands that its lifeguards pass a course where they must swim 100 meters, tread water for one minute and then retrieve a 10 pound object from the bottom. From $13 an hour in the past year, starting pay this year is $15. Boyd explained that those who are able to stay for the full season will get a $100 retention bonus.
“I’ve tried to get some of my friends that want to get a summer job and want to have money in their pockets,”Donald Harris, second year lifeguard, said that he was 17. “They’ve just said lifeguarding isn’t for them.”
At Indiana’s state parks, lifeguards are paid $11 an hour. All of the state’s 37 facilities remain open, but some operate on limited hours, said Terry Coleman, director of the Division of Indiana State Parks. Coleman stated that many Indiana state parks also have swimming pools with shallow depths without lifeguards.
“We’re looking at potential incentives for maybe the 2023 recreation season, but nothing in stone yet,”He stated.
A number of Maine’s state parks opened their season without the presence of lifeguards. Visitors are informed when there is no lifeguard on duty at the park entry, according to Jim Britt, spokesperson of the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. A state lifeguard earns $16 an hour.
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“It’s a concern,” Britt said. “There’s no two ways about it. We want lifeguards to be there and to be on duty.”
Chicago, which boasts one of the nation’s largest aquatic programs — 77 public pools and 22 beaches that serve a population of nearly 2.75 million — pushed opening day for pools back to July 5 from June 24.
“Chicago families rely on our park programs during the summer, so we are not giving up,” Chicago Park District Superintendent Rosa Escareño said in a news release.
Escareño attributed the scarcity in part to “mass resignation” — referring to post-pandemic labor shortages.
Chicago Park District offers $15.88 per hour, and bonuses of up to $600 (up from $500 in May) for those who are hired during the summer. They also removed residency requirements so that applicants don’t have to be residents of the city.
A scandal in the Chicago Park District involving sexual abuse by lifeguards may have caused applicant hesitation, but it is not related to the pandemic.
Escareño said the organization has since strengthened its accountability and reporting systems.
“I think right now, the most important thing is to ensure that we open safely, and that we place the greatest priority on safety, not just the safety of our residents, but also the safety of our employees,”She said.
This article was contributed by the Associated Press
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