Lifeguard shortage is sparking safety concerns as the summer swimming season kicks off

May 29, 2023, 2:38 PM

An empty lifeguard chair stands at Coney Island, one of New York City's most popular beach destinat...

An empty lifeguard chair stands at Coney Island, one of New York City's most popular beach destinations, on June 29, 2022. (Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(Spencer Platt/Getty Images)

(CNN) — As people flock to beaches, lakes and pools this Memorial Day to celebrate the unofficial start of summer, the swimmers are here – but the lifeguards aren’t. At least, that’s what some parks departments and agencies around the country are saying as they scramble to find and keep lifeguards on duty for the season.

In New York, it takes around 1,400 lifeguards to keep the city’s beaches and pools fully staffed, and officials are feeling the staffing strain.

“This number includes a second shift of lifeguards to cover early morning and late-night swim programming at pools, which we are not able to accommodate this year,” New York City Parks press officer Gregg McQueen told CNN.

Like communities across the country, the city’s lifeguard ranks were severely depleted by losses during the Covid-19 pandemic, McQueen said. Many public swimming venues were shut down during the pandemic and some certified and potential lifeguards found work elsewhere.

With over 200 new recruits and over 280 returning lifeguards currently going through the certification process, McQueen said the city is hoping to reach similar staffing levels as last year, when it had about 900 lifeguards.

The parks agency is focused on keeping the city’s pools and beaches open this summer, he added.

Thea Setterbo, director of communications for District Council 37, the union representing many of New York’s lifeguards, told CNN the current shortage is consistent with national trends.

“Our numbers of returning lifeguards are consistent with what we saw last year,” Setterbo said.

Other communities are feeling a similar strain – for the third year in a row – and the American Lifeguard Association is warning that pools and beaches may shut down if they aren’t adequately staffed.

Different regions have unique challenges in terms of lifeguard staffing, United States Lifesaving Association Vice President Tom Gill told CNN.

Areas with warmer beaches year round, including South Florida and Southern California, where lifeguards are needed all year, typically have less trouble staying staffed.

Smaller coastal communities with rising housing costs sometimes have problems bringing in lifeguards for seasonal work, because those people cannot afford to live in the areas they work, Gill said. Areas with larger populations sometimes lose potential lifeguards to the bevy of other employment options available, he said.

“There are so many opportunities,” Gill said. “Anything that a 17-, 18-, 20-year-old wants to do, they can do it – because the jobs are available.”

That means fewer potential lifeguards.

“That pool of people – pun intended – is just smaller,” said Gill. “You’ve got to work really hard to recruit, and when you get them there, to pay them well, train them well and treat them well.”


Finding and keeping lifeguards


“America needs to take lifeguarding seriously,” Wyatt Werneth, a spokesperson for the American Lifeguard Association, told CNN’s Erica Hill and Rahel Solomon on Monday. “We need to train individuals, get them excited at an early age and offer them a career path forward.”

Some cities are offering incentives to sweeten the deal for potential lifeguards.

“New York City has raised the pay rate for new and second-year seasonal lifeguards to approximately $21.26 per hour for the 2023 season. All lifeguards working through mid-August are eligible to receive a $1,000 bonus,” McQueen said.

Agencies in Indiana, Phoenix and Austin, Texas, are also offering monetary incentives for lifeguards. The Denver Parks department is offering free lifeguard training in an effort to keep numbers up.

Keeping swimming venues staffed with lifeguards is a matter of safety, experts say.

A 15-year-old boy was pulled out of the water and later died after swimming at a New Jersey beach not overseen by a lifeguard Sunday afternoon, Daphne Yun, a National Park Service spokesperson, told CNN.

About 70% of drowning deaths among children 15 years old and younger happen between May and August each year, according to the American Academy of Pediatrics.

The US Centers for Disease Control and Prevention says about 4,012 fatal unintentional drownings happen every year in the United States, including boating incidents, an average of 11 drowning deaths per day.


Staying safe this summer


“This is a real problem,” Adam Katchmarchi, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance, told CNN’s John Berman on Monday.

Katchmarchi said some facilities and venues that are unable to keep lifeguards on staff have just two options: shut down altogether or become a swim-at-your-own risk venue.

“Neither one is that good for the general safety of the public,” he said. “Unless we come up with both a short-term and a long-term solution to this problem, this is something that we’re going to face summer after summer,” Katchmarchi said.

In addition to safety tips like wearing a life jacket and swimming in groups, Gill, with the US Lifesaving Association, says families should look up venues that have a lifeguard on site, and factor that into their summer planning this year.

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Lifeguard shortage is sparking safety concerns as the summer swimming season kicks off