WRCC in need of rescue from the community amid lifeguard shortage

May 19—DICKINSON — Few things in life pair better than pools and summertime, although red swim trunks and a whistle go together just as swimmingly to make the aquatic activities possible at your local pool as the sun shines and temperatures rise.

Dickinson's only outdoor public pool is located at the West River Community Center, where staff is trying to navigate a dire shortage of lifeguard personnel amid the impending summer months. As they prepare for the warmer days ahead filling up their outdoor pool areas and getting everything cleaned and prepped, they worry most about filling enough lifeguard positions to keep the pool open at its full capacity.

WRCC staff said they encountered this issue last year and have noticed a drop in applicants ever since the pandemic. Recreation & Facilities Manager Andrew Grafton inflation and stagnant wages have only exacerbated the problem.

"A lot of people just figured out they didn't have to work, so they just didn't want to. And then for us personally, our lifeguard wages have always been higher than most but in the last few years, everyone else has gotten $15, $18, $20 where we have just stayed the same," Grafton said.

He noted pool currently has about 30 total lifeguards with very sparse availability, though for the pool to be able to be used at full capacity, which includes the indoor, outdoor, and morning swim lessons they would need 18 lifeguards stationed throughout the pools at any given time to ensure safety for summer swimmers.

At peak hours it is common for the pool to welcome over 400 people. On busy event days like Swimming Under the Stars that number can easily reach 450 to 500, according to Aquatics and Facility Supervisor Colter Hickok. However, if there aren't enough lifeguards in place, the rec center will be forced to limit their capacity.

Limited capacity often entails a one in one out policy which leads to long lines and lengthy wait times for those hoping to beat the heat and enter the pool, Hickok explained.

"At the very peak hours usually at two or three, it's a one in one out policy. And that's when we have 11 lifeguards with 400 max capacity. We can have 100 people waiting in line," Hickok said.

Hickok has worked at the center for six years, the last year spent lifeguarding where he has found joy not only in the new faces he meets but in the regulars he gets to watch grow and excel.

"I've gotten to know a lot of people within the community, teaching swim lessons, being known as the lifeguard with glasses or the fat lifeguard with glasses, for lack of a better word for it. You get regulars that you have known, you see kids grow up through the swim lessons program, and being able to see how they progress in all the different levels that you've taught them. I think it's pretty rewarding just to see that, see the growth from the kids and to see the proud parents," Hickok said.

Hickok started his position when he was going through college which is why he recommends this job for many high school and college students, even student-athletes too as the center provides flexible hours for their employees.

The lifeguarding position requires applicants to be at least 15 years of age and complete a lifeguard certification course to gain skills to prevent, recognize and respond to aquatic emergencies. These courses will be hosted at the WRCC over the next few months on May 19-21, June 23-25, August 25-27 and November 3-5.

The cost of the three-day American Red Cross course is $200, but Grafton said the fee is completely reimbursed upon hiring.

Registration for the

lifeguard certification courses

can be found on the WRCC website, along with more information about the job at

dickinsonparks.org/employment.

Ultimately, Hickok and Grafton urge community members to consider a job lifeguarding this summer if not for the money, to help the community and have some fun.

"So with lifeguarding, you get tan. You get to sit outside all day. And besides that, though, I think it's kind of a rewarding job where if you save somebody, you kind of feel pretty proud that without you saving them something bad could have happened," Hickok said.