With shrinking pool of lifeguards, towns struggle to staff swimming spots

·4 min read

May 24—Finding lifeguards for area swimming spots was never easy. Local parks and recreation directors have often had to compete over the same pool of candidates, which is usually small to begin with.

But this year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, the lack of qualified lifeguards in the Monadnock Region — and the nation — has been exacerbated.

"This is exceptional," said Lisa Betz, Peterborough's parks and recreation director. "I haven't had to sweat it like I am now. I haven't had to potentially close [Cunningham Pond] to lifeguarding or put it at 'swim at your own risk' because we may not have lifeguards."

There are a few reasons for the nationwide shortage, according to the American Lifeguard Association.

Lifeguards must be certified, which includes 30 hours of training and a swim test. Training and certification programs, however, have been backlogged because the pandemic resulted in class cancellations. And even when classes are available, the programs cost hundreds of dollars.

Travel restrictions have also limited the number of college and foreign exchange students who are looking for lifeguarding work and, along with high-schoolers, typically make up a good portion of the applicant pool.

Betz said she typically hires 19 lifeguards to staff Cunningham Pond and Adams Pool. On a normal day, she said, four would be on duty at the pool and two or three at the pond.

As of Thursday, Betz said three lifeguards had agreed to come back, and an additional nine had been hired. However, the new hires still need to complete their certification.

The pond opens to the public this weekend, but lifeguards will not be staffing it, according to Betz.

"That'll be every weekend until we have the staff to do so," she said.

The pool is scheduled to open with lifeguards June 17, once local students get out of school.

In Jaffrey, Contoocook Beach — also slated to open this weekend — will start out with visitors warned they are swimming at their own risk, according to interim Parks and Recreation Director Sarah Hooper.

About nine lifeguards are typically hired, she said, but only two people had applied as of last week.

"Normally by this time we already had our full staff," Hooper said. "At this point we can't run the beach with two lifeguards."

Samantha Hill, Chesterfield's parks and recreation director, said the town is offering to pay for recertification and new certifications to recruit more staff.

"If you were becoming a lifeguard for the first time, we'd pay for half of the season and we'd pay for the rest of it if they come back," she said.

But unlike in other towns, Hill said hiring has been easier this year, in part because many people who worked as lifeguards before have returned.

This is also due to a slight change to how Wares Grove Beach on Spofford Lake will be manned, according to Hill.

Seven to 10 lifeguards were usually hired to work from Memorial Day to Labor Day, but Hill said it's difficult to get staff to stay for that long, especially when they're high-school or college students.

To help with that, the beach will be without lifeguards from Memorial Day to June 21, when lifeguards will start staffing the beach Monday through Friday from 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Any other time, visitors will be swimming at their own risk, Hill said.

Because of this, she said, Chesterfield needed to hire only four people for the beach.

Keene is also offering to pay for certifications for lifeguards at its public pools — at Wheelock and Robin Hood parks — according to Andy Bohannon, parks and recreation director.

"You gotta go out and pay anywhere between $300 and $400 to become certified, and think about it — when you were 15 or 16, did you have $300 or $400 in your pocket?" he said. "... So we gotta find ways to gain good employees."

Keene usually hires about 17 lifeguards for its pools, and has already had trouble in years past with recruitment since it's competing with places like the Keene Family YMCA and local country clubs.

"It's hard when you have ... a very small area that is competing against itself for one particular employee," Bohannon said.

As of last week, about 11 people had been hired so far this year, which he said is enough to staff one of the pools.

"Can we open two pools? If we can't properly staff them, the answer is no," Bohannon said. "And then do you flip from one pool to the other? But then operational costs become a consideration."

He added that the nation is also facing a chlorine shortage, so that could also affect whether both can open. At the very least, Wheelock's pool will open June 22, Bohannon said.

"It provides a challenge," he said, "but we all seem to be able to do it."

Olivia Belanger can be reached at 352-1234, extension 1439, or obelanger@keenesentinel.com. Follow her on Twitter @OBelangerKS.