Aqua blue light ripples off the tile walls of the Pullen Aquatic Center last Tuesday, home to an Olympic-sized swimming pool and more than a dozen lifeguards-in-training.
The teenagers, mostly wearing casual exercise shorts and T-shirts, are waiting for their chance to dive in and practice the skills they’ve learned in a weeklong training class. Those skills include lifting their partners out of the water, giving CPR using a rescue mask, and using backboards designed to stabilize people with neck injuries.
“If you’re being lifted, it’s really hard, because if some members of your group can’t lift you up properly, you will drown,” says Jackson Jones-Selater, 16, poking fun at his partner Jaiden Phillips, also 16.
“I’ve been partners with him all week, I’ve been having to lift him out of the water,” Phillips explains, gesturing to Jones-Selater’s six-foot frame. The teen must outweigh her by at least 30 pounds. “You’re so heavy. I’m not saying anything bad, you’re just heavy.”
Learning lifeguard skills has been challenging at times, the teenagers agree, but also fun.
“You have to trust the people you’re working with,” says Olivia Poteat, 15. “You’re practicing saving someone drowning, so you have to lay facedown in the water and just trust that they’re going to get you. The first day, that’s what we did. I had no idea who anyone was, but I’ve made friendships now.”
The group of teenage applicants, soon to be literal lifesavers, are also a saving grace for Ken Hisler, assistant director of Raleigh’s parks, recreation, and cultural resources department. Raleigh, like cities nationwide, has been struggling to find lifeguards for its pools—four that are open year-round and four that are typically open from Memorial Day, in late May, to Labor Day, in early September.
The national lifeguard shortage, however, forced Raleigh officials to keep summer pools closed this year through mid-June. Even now, only two of the four summer pools are open, and only during weekends. At year-round pools, staff have had to close sections, reduce hours, and limit swim lessons.
City officials prioritized opening Biltmore and Longview pools, both located in low-income neighborhoods in southeast Raleigh. Unlike in some richer, whiter, parts of the city, there aren’t many private neighborhood pools in the area for families to use. Pools there are an important resource for children and active adults, Hisler says.
“When we looked at our seasonal operation, our priorities were looking at those communities that may not have access to a pool,” Hisler says. “Our focus was ‘How do we make sure those communities that don’t have another resource are prioritized?’ That’s why Longview opened first, [because] we’re the community pool in that [neighborhood].”
Raleigh’s pools serve four different groups, Hisler says: families and children who use the pools for recreation, people who are taking water safety and swim lessons, people who swim regularly as exercise, and third-party groups like swim teams. At the moment, Hisler is trying to ensure people can use summer pools for recreation and find swimming instruction at year-round facilities.
“Our first responsibility is to serve the public,” Hisler says. “Right now what we’ve tried to do is make sure we can maintain [opportunities at year-round pools]. We’ve been able to balance those four communities to a certain extent.”
Why is there a lifeguard shortage?
The lifeguard shortage isn’t a new problem. Staffing public pools and beachfronts has been an issue for the last 20 years, says Bernard Fisher, director of the American Lifeguard Association.
A drop in the number of interested applicants combined with a spike in the construction of new public pools created the perfect storm. The ratio of lifeguards to pools became unbalanced, Fisher says. Increased development also created more beachfront area for fewer lifeguards to patrol.
The situation was bad, but not unmanageable, Fisher says. At least until the coronavirus pandemic.
“We [usually] bring in about 300,000 new lifeguard candidates every year. The first year of the pandemic, we pretty much didn’t train anyone,” Fisher says. “Also, the certification is good for two years. So the people who got their certifications two years before the pandemic, they needed to come and renew it … but we missed them.”
The pandemic created a backup in the number of new lifeguards coming through the training pipeline, so now, as officials are trying to fully reopen pools, there’s a severe shortage of workers.
“We didn’t have as much demand [during the pandemic],” Hisler says. “Therefore, there wasn’t as much of a push [for workers]. There just weren’t as many people coming to the pools.”
“[The pools] that have opened … we’re not going to be able to keep them all open until Labor Day, because we rely heavily on the youth that have to go back to school,” Fisher says.
Hisler is anticipating a more severe shortage of lifeguards come August, as high school and college students go back to school, he says. Staffing has historically been a problem during the earliest and latest weeks of summer. One possible solution is to hire retirees, according to Fisher.
“They come down and they are swimming laps for fitness and health. They enjoy it. They like the community and want to help,” Fisher says. “We just need to let them know that, hey, there’s no age limit to coming down and getting trained and helping your community pool.”
Per Fisher’s advice, Hisler and other Raleigh officials are trying to reach out to active adults and retirees, many of whom come to the pool daily and have schedules that enable them to work during the daytime hours. City staff are also considering offering retention bonuses for lifeguards who will stay on until Labor Day, Hisler says.
Another problem Raleigh faces is getting qualified applicants. The city is now seeing more applicants for lifeguarding positions, but not everyone who applies can pass the swim assessment, Hisler says.
“Even if somebody’s interested in becoming a lifeguard, they have to be able to pass the certification requirements, and that’s not something that everybody’s able to accomplish,” he says. “Hiring lifeguards across the country has been challenging for many of us, because it is a little more physically demanding than a lot of part-time jobs.”
One solution to that problem may be hiring lifeguards with shallow water certifications, which are easier to get than deep water certifications, says Fisher. Shallow water lifeguards can’t guard deep diving areas but can guard wading pools, shallow water areas, and five-foot lap lanes, freeing up more experienced lifeguards to watch the deep end.
Fisher adds that cities should also do their best to keep pools open for swimming classes and lifeguard training, which create better swimmers and more lifeguards.
The good news is that Raleigh officials have been able to hire more lifeguards in recent weeks. Eighteen lifeguards have been hired since June, and another 19 recently graduated training and are in the midst of the hiring process. To open all the city’s pools full-time, officials need to hire about 50 more lifeguards, according to Hisler. Recent news coverage of the crisis has helped get the word out, he says.
“There’ve been a lot of parents recently … [who will] look to their kids and go, ‘You can swim, you can meet these requirements. Let’s go and see if we can help out.’ That’s been super exciting,” Hisler says. “Another community member recognized their local pool was going to be impacted and went out and found teenagers they already had a relationship with. They said, ‘Let’s go to the job fair and submit our applications, because we know that if we can be guards, then that helps get our community pool open.’”
At least one teenager applied for a lifeguard position this month because of recent news coverage. Addie Coral, 15, says she heard about the job opportunity through WRAL, and her aunt encouraged her to apply.
“I’ve actually worked before, I worked for a little bit at a general store. But I felt like it would be a fun job to do,” Coral says.
Plus, “it was better pay than what I’ve been getting,” she says. “When my brother started lifeguarding, it was like $7.25.”
The raise in hourly pay is another strategy Raleigh officials are using to try to recruit new lifeguards, Hisler says. Raleigh raised starting pay for lifeguards from $9 an hour to $13 an hour. More experienced lifeguards can make up to $15 an hour.
The strategy seems to be working. Phillips and Jones-Selater each said the higher pay was one of the reasons they decided to apply. Jones-Selater plans to use the money he makes this summer to buy three new rolls of leather, he says. One of his hobbies is crafting leather bags and wallets.
If city officials are able to hire enough lifeguards, they plan to open the Lake Johnson pool next, Hisler says. They also want to add weekday hours at Biltmore and Longview as temperatures climb into the 90s.
“Thirty minutes after we opened [Longview], there were already kids in the pool, and they were jumping [around]. For me, that’s why we do what we do,” Hisler says.
“There’s nothing better, during the summer, than family and friends having the opportunity to just come together. That’s what the pools create. They’re community gathering spaces. [They] break down barriers. It’s just an opportunity for kids to be kids … for neighbors to connect in a relaxing atmosphere, maybe meet somebody new.”
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