Zoe Baumeister grabbed a personal flotation device and sprinted into the surf at Clearwater Beach, dolphin-diving through the waves.
When she reached a swimmer needing help, Baumeister, 12, waved her hand and two other girls plunged into the water. Together they carried the swimmer back to shore, completing a water rescue drill that was part of a junior lifeguard camp organized by lifeguards with Clearwater Fire and Rescue.
The lifeguards hope the camp fuels the kids’ desire to join their ranks one day, even as the nation grapples with decreasing interest from the public and a shortage of applications for the job. A third of pools or waterparks that are normally open during the summer in the U.S. have had to close or reduce hours because of the shortage, said Wyatt Werneth, spokesperson for the American Lifeguard Association.
“You can go get a job at a big retail or restaurant, and they’re paying about the same thing they pay lifeguards in certain areas,” Werneth said. “It’s easier just to gravitate to a job where you don’t have to go through all the training to get the job.”
In Clearwater, the plan is to “identify children that are interested, get them trained early on, keep their interest and put them in a tower one day,” said Patrick Brafford, chief lifeguard for the city’s beaches.
So far, the strategy seems to be paying off.
“When I turn 17, I plan on coming out here and working for these guys,” said 15-year-old Connor Keely.
Though the Clearwater Beach lifeguard department has struggled with a lack of applications, it has remained fully operational. Other departments at pools and parks in the Tampa Bay area have not been as fortunate: The lifeguard shortage has forced them to reduce hours, push staff to work overtime or eliminate certain programming.
Clearwater has had to scale back hours at some of its five pools. St. Petersburg has struggled to fill all of the seasonal lifeguard positions at its pools. And some of Pinellas County’s parks — Sand Key, Fort DeSoto and Fred Howard — have only a third of the lifeguard staff they need, according to Andrea Moreira, the county’s aquatics supervisor.
“We’re all pretty much in the same boat, and we’re all trying to figure out exactly what can we do to get parents to say, ‘Hey, school is out, I want my child to be a lifeguard,’” said Mark Roberson, a recreation supervisor at Clearwater’s Long Center.
In late May, the city of Austin, Texas, had less than a third of the 750 lifeguards it needed to operate its pools. In early June, more than half the city pools in Raleigh, North Carolina, were unable to open for the summer. A similar dynamic has played out in Phoenix, Milwaukee, Cincinnati and other cities.
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The shortage has three primary causes, Werneth said.
First, the pandemic paused many of the lifeguard trainings and certifications that normally take place in preparation for each summer. Also, the Trump administration in 2020 banned J-1 foreign work visas, which had enabled young people from Europe to work as lifeguards in the U.S. during summer. Finally, lifeguard departments are struggling to attract and retain people when other jobs are beckoning.
Most of the agencies in Tampa Bay don’t rely on seasonal foreign workers and have been able to continue certifying lifeguards despite the pandemic. But they have struggled to compete against companies for workers.
“We’re losing them more to Panera, not because of the visas,” said Heather Erickson, manager of Athletics, Aquatics & Special Facilities for the city of Tampa.
Erickson said the city recently raised the seasonal lifeguard pay to $15 an hour, which helped with recruiting, but she thinks many young people still prefer working in jobs where they can be inside and close to their phones.
Moreira, the Pinellas aquatics supervisor, said two of her lifeguards left this past week because they found jobs that paid $25 an hour with full benefits instead of the $17 the county pays.
Agencies in the area have responded with a variety of tactics.
Clearwater has reduced its pool hours to the times the pools are busiest, and it has fewer people working more hours, Roberson said. In Pinellas, some county parks are staffed only on weekends and holidays instead of seven days a week, Moreira said. And some of Tampa’s pools are open six days a week instead of seven.
Clearwater and St. Petersburg have waived the fees for getting trained and certified.
Much like Clearwater, St. Petersburg has run a junior lifeguard camp as a “feeder program” for the past several years. The city of Tampa has a “rookie school,” a skills test where people can practice the physical requirements for lifeguarding.
“We’ve identified the problem, but we can’t really do a lot about the problem other than just manage it right now,” said Werneth, of the Lifeguard Association. “And like I tell my family through all this stuff that’s been going on with the pandemic, we’ll get through this.”
What do you do when there’s no lifeguard?
While the area’s city pools are staffed with lifeguards, many beaches are not. Pinellas County’s parks remain open even when lifeguards aren’t present, and most of the beach towns don’t have dedicated lifeguard staff.
In situations where a lifeguard isn’t present, people should practice water competency: being smart, capable and safe about going into the water, said Linda Quan, a professor of pediatrics at the University of Washington School of Medicine.
The first step is to research beaches and choose those with fewer hazards, like strong currents or drop-offs. At the beach, people should provide adequate supervision for swimmers in their group, perhaps even designating one person as a water watcher.
“You are the first line of defense, regardless of whether or not the lifeguard is there,” Quan said.
Quan also advises that people who are weak swimmers should wear life jackets while in the water. Parents should get their kids into swimming lessons as early as possible, generally when the kids are 5 or 6 years old, she said.
If a person in the water needs help, people should toss them a flotation device but avoid swimming out to try to save them — “reach or throw, but don’t go,” Quan said.
She said many communities are seeing an uptick in open-water drownings.
“Our communities need to perk up about this problem and not ignore it,” she said. “Being next to water is like being next to the freeway. We all are lulled by water and it’s very calming. But we need to be wise and smart about that.”