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Creative Solutions to Lifeguard Shortage

Between newfound sunny days and rising temperatures, it’s not unusual that many Denverites are seeking the refuge of local pools to escape the heat. In recent summers, however, a new challenge has faced metro area pools and recreation centers alike: a shortage of lifeguards to ensure the safety of neighbors. 

“When I became a lifeguard back in the day they had Baywatch on TV, and everyone wanted that lifestyle. You used to have 100 people show up for two positions and they’d take the most qualified. Now you’re seeing two people show up for a hundred positions,” said Wyatt Werneth, spokesperson for the American Lifeguard Association. 

Public pools represent an important resource beyond the purpose of simple recreation. For one, they offer a cheap solution for families who can’t afford the more exclusive private athletic clubs. Additionally, when pools are made unavailable and kids are left to their own devices to find a place to swim, it can be dangerous. Just north of Denver, Boulder Fire-Rescue has saved five people from Boulder Creek in just two weeks. Not to mention most swim lesson programs are run by lifeguards, making it more difficult for young swimmers to learn the basics increasing the risk of drownings. .

“More people are drowning right now, and it’s because of the lack of lifeguards,” said Werneth. 

So what’s causing the problem? For starters, the COVID-19 pandemic may have been the beginning. Lifeguards across the country were cut during the initial shutdown, and pools have struggled to replace the loss in the labor force. This, combined with potential guards receiving more lucrative offers from companies that require less training, means the problem has persisted. 

“What we’re seeing this year is an increase in years past since the pandemic. We’re seeing over half of the 309,000 parks and pools [nationwide] either experiencing closures or reductions in hours,” said Werneth. “It’s been a deep-seated issue since lifeguarding grew into this summertime job. And it’s more than that. Lifeguard: it’s in our name.” 

Although the job of a lifeguard is most commonly filled by teens who may not yet pay the same bills adults do, current wages certainly factor into the lack of applicants. 

“It’s definitely the pay,” said Elijah Maestas, one of the head guards at Mestizo-Curtis Outdoor Pool. It’s minimum wage, which is $17.29 in Denver. “Capacity is limited now because we don’t have enough guards. It’s 20 [people] per lifeguard.”

Despite the challenges, local and state governments are determined to resolve the issue. In May, Gov. Jared Polis announced a $250,000 initiative to keep public pools fully staffed. This money will go toward covering lifeguard training and certification, making the job more accessible for workers that find cost to be an issue. According to Leslie Pickard, director of recreation at Denver Parks and Recreation, the city hires lifeguards year-round and provides free American Red Cross training to committed candidates 15 years and older. 

“There’s been incentives up to $3,000 sign-on bonuses, increase in pay, offers to cover lifeguard training—I’ve even seen sporting event tickets,” said Werneth. 

Some local pools have adopted more creative solutions. Northglenn Rec Center has hired a number of senior citizen lifeguards, many of whom were already regulars at the pool. Though one usually pictures a teenager filling the role, these seniors have allowed the pool to stay open and at capacity so far this season.

In another creative approach to the issue, the Wheat Ridge Police Department took to Twitter to post humorous calls to action for hopeful lifeguards. 

“The social media posts of police officers acting as lifeguards was a creative way to bring attention to the issue. Since the post we have seen an influx in applications and feel we are better positioned to get fully staffed,” said Amanda Harrison, the City of Wheat Ridge communications and engagement manager. 

Though the hiring hasn’t been easy, a number of officials and departments continue to work together to alleviate the strain facing local pools. With increased funding and the help of locals ready to pitch in and do their part, perhaps the solution isn’t so far off. 

“We are always seeking qualified candidates,” Pickard said. “By providing training free of cost and ample opportunity to receive certification, we’re hopeful to continue hiring momentum throughout the summer.”

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