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Swimmers should get ready for another summer short on lifeguards

A lifeguard watches as people cool off in a public swimming pool in 2021 in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens in New York City.
Spencer Platt
Getty Images
A lifeguard watches as people cool off in a public swimming pool in 2021 in the Astoria neighborhood of Queens in New York City.

Over a decade ago, about 100 people showed up to apply for the two beach lifeguard positions available in Brevard County, Fla., said Wyatt Werneth, who was the chief lifeguard at the time. This year, the number of applicants and open slots had somewhat flipped.

"With 50 positions to be filled in this open water environment, only two people came out for the initial training," Werneth told NPR.

Across the country, fewer people are up for the task to be water rescuers at their local public pools and beaches. The issue has been brewing for years, with poor pay and waning interest playing a part. The pandemic aggravated the situation.

Last summer, the stubborn shortage led to beach closures, shortened hours and slashed community programs. Werneth, who is also the spokesperson for the American Lifeguard Association, anticipates the same to happen this year — especially at public pools.

"We have over 309,000 public pools and we're looking at an impact of over 50% of them being closed or having a reduction in hours," he said.

The consequences can be fatal. According to the CDC, for children ages 5 to 14, drowning is the second leading cause of unintentional injury death, mainly in pools, lakes, rivers or oceans.

Blame the end of Baywatch, and a halt on visas

There is a high bar to become a lifeguard — candidates have to be great swimmers, physically fit, responsible, as well as complete a series of trainings on CPR and first responder skills.

In the past, lifeguarding was considered an esteemed, prestigious career, but over the years, it has been viewed more as a part-time summer job, according to Werneth. He partly blames the declining interest on the end of the TV hit series Baywatch, which followed a group of attractive lifeguards heroically saving lives by the shore.

"I wanted to be a lifeguard because of Baywatch, Werneth said. "Everyone on that show was revered as adults, it was a career."

But over the years, pay has declined and people "just started looking at it as part-time summer jobs and it mirrored the same pay that waiting tables did," he said.

Another challenge for the lifeguard workforce has been visas. The industry has relied on thousands of people from Eastern Europe coming to the U.S. on J-1 visas to work as lifeguards. Early in the pandemic, many work visas, including the J-1, were put on pause by the Trump administration.

President Biden allowed this ban to expire in April 2021. But the pipeline hasn't caught up yet.

"The areas where [the visas] have been used in the past are getting them back," said Tom Gil, the vice president of the United States Lifesaving Association. "But there's a lot to be done on both ends of the spectrum between the applicant and the agency trying to hire."

Cities across the U.S. are scrambling to hire lifeguards

In New York City, roughly a third of the total number of lifeguards needed to staff its pools and beaches are currently filled, WNYC reported. The staffing issue comes after multiple incentives to bolster recruitment, including raising the hourly pay from $16.10 to $21.26 and offering a $1,000 bonus.

Meanwhile, in Houston, the mayor announcedthat the city's pools will open in three phases while officials work to hire and certify more lifeguards. In Denver, some senior citizens have steppedup to fill the shortage themselves. And in Philadelphia, the city beganaccepting applications from people without prior swimming experience.

How to keep yourself safe amid the lifeguard shortage

To some extent, the incentives have been working — slowly, Werneth said.

Meanwhile, he has three pieces of advice for people planning to enjoy the water this summer. First, check whether the pool or beach will have a lifeguard on the day of your visit.

Second, "if you have a group of people, assign a water watcher, kind of your own personal lifeguard for your group, someone that's going to not be distracted," he said. "You can have more than one and take turns."

Lastly, if someone does not know how to swim, make sure they don't go into the water without a Coast Guard-approved life jacket.

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Juliana Kim
Juliana Kim is a weekend reporter for Digital News, where she adds context to the news of the day and brings her enterprise skills to NPR's signature journalism.