On a clear morning earlier this summer, a whistle blew. Stampeding children rushed down Clearwater Beach and dove into the warm water.
Thrashing about, they each grabbed their drill partners — who were smiling and bobbing above the waves — and pulled them ashore.
Quynh Tollon, 11, and her fellow campers were learning what it takes to be one of Clearwater’s lifeguards. While most of the kids said they enjoy pretending to be saved from drowning, Quynh said she prefers playing the lifeguard role.
“The saving part is fun, too,” she said.
Clearwater began staffing lifeguards on its beach year-round in 1975. It costs about $1.2 million a year, but city officials say it’s worth it because of the high volume of beach incidents. In 2021, Clearwater tallied more than 75,000 actions taken by lifeguards — which vary from swim zone rule violations to missing person searches.
So far this year, the city’s beach lifeguards have 59 saves on the 1¼ miles of sand they cover.
Clearwater, however, is an exception in Pinellas County, which reported its highest-ever tourism numbers last year. The county’s other cities and towns that cover the remaining 34 miles of beach let swimmers venture out at their own risk.
According to the Pinellas-Pasco Medical Examiner’s Office, 99 people have drowned in gulf waters in their district since 2014. There have been as few as five in 2018 and as many as 21 in 2020. Last year, there were seven.
As drowning deaths remain steady, beaches from Belleair to Treasure Island without lifeguard programs have two choices: Continue to rely on local fire rescue or start a new program from scratch. They cite costs and liability as reasons to avoid hiring lifeguards.
Some beach community leaders say it’s time for a change.
“I have zero concern about liability,” said Madeira Beach fire chief Clint Belk. “Our entire job is based off of helping the community. How much more liable can you get?”
Where are the lifeguards?
A national lifeguard shortage caused by better-paying jobs and pandemic-related training disruptions has forced beaches and pools to find creative ways to get adolescents to choose lifeguarding over busing tables at a restaurant. And as global temperatures continue to rise, public pools and beaches will be critical for people without access to air conditioning to cool off during hot summer months.
Treasure Island, a small beach town spanning two ZIP codes, has never had lifeguards and, for the foreseeable future, doesn’t plan to hire any.
Tyler Payne sat on the City Commission for three years before he was elected mayor in 2021.
“In those six years, I’ve never had one resident reach out to me requesting that we have lifeguards,” he said.
The city of St. Pete Beach has a population of nearly 9,000 residents and 4 miles of public beach access.
Public officials haven’t seriously considered adding a lifeguard program either, though some residents have shown concern over recent drownings, said beach manager Ayako Ruckdeschel. A father and his 10-year-old daughter drowned in April, and a mother died saving four children caught in strong rip currents in 2018.
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“In a perfect world, yeah,” she said. “If we didn’t have the other difficulties that we face, there should be lifeguards every 100 yards down the beach.”
That would mean about 70 lifeguards stationed from Pass-a-Grille to Blind Pass.
Ruckdeschel said these difficulties range from recruitment struggles to equipment and staffing costs — she estimates a lifeguard program would cost the city about $1 million annually out of its nearly $73 million budget.
“I think it comes down to liability, as well,” she said. “It would place a burden of liability on the city if we were to introduce such a program.”
Another beach town breaks ranks
Belk said he’s been pushing for a program in Madeira Beach since taking over as fire chief in 2020.
There was a time when every Madeira Beach firefighter was lifeguard-certified, Belk said. Now, there are only a handful of firefighters qualified for water rescue, which he said only increases the need for a full-fledged lifeguard program.
While Belk’s previous beach safety ideas were shot down by local officials who said they didn’t fit into the city budget, he’s had more luck lately. Last week, his staff met with the city manager about how a lifeguard program would work in Madeira Beach.
Belk said they agreed on a budget of $1 million to get the program up and running. He said he isn’t exactly sure where the city will get the money, but a half-cent tax on parking might be a good starting place.
“I told them it has to be sustainable,” Belk said. “It can’t be just for a couple years — getting that first million dollars and then it’s gone.”
It’s likely Madeira Beach won’t see any lifeguards for another two years. But that’s OK, Belk said. The Fire Department is already struggling with recruitment, and Belk expects the same will be true for a lifeguard program.
“We don’t want to go out there and embarrass ourselves,” he said. “We want to make sure we do it right.”
Ideally, the Fire Department would oversee lifeguards, Belk said. He’s pushing for between eight and 10 onshore positions. But there are other costs, such as Jet Skis, all-terrain vehicles and shaded lifeguard towers.
“We can’t have these guys sitting in a lawn chair in the heat all day,” Belk said. “We have to have some kind of protection.”
In Pinellas’ small beach towns without lifeguard programs, the responsibility to save people drowning or trapped in riptides historically falls on fire departments.
Belk said it takes three minutes for one of his firefighters to get from the station to the beach at John’s Pass in a boat. But a lifeguard could reach a drowning person in 30 seconds.
“We don’t fight as much fire as we used to, but the water rescues are going to continue,” Belk said. “That’s our main focus now.”
Some of Belk’s firefighters previously worked as lifeguards for DeSoto County and Clearwater Beach. He said he’s taking cues from nearby programs while trying to build his own.
Small wages and even smaller staffs
Konrad Ciolko, Clearwater Beach water safety supervisor, said lifeguarding was his first job when he turned 18.
Ciolko, now 39, said he doesn’t regret sticking around despite low wages. He “definitely doesn’t do it for the money,” and said he worked a second job for eight years to supplement his lifeguard salary.
“I live below my means,” Ciolko said. “I don’t own a big boat and big house.”
An increasingly long beach season has also put stress on Clearwater’s lifeguards. Tourism used to slow down after Labor Day, but now there’s a need for lifeguards year-round, according to beach lifeguard manager Patrick Brafford.
“As long as the weather’s good, the beach is busy,” he said.
The Clearwater Fire & Rescue junior beach lifeguard camp is one way the city is trying to rekindle interest in the job. And, so far, program managers say it’s worked.
Clearwater’s lifeguard program has recently seen growth after a few hard years, Brafford said. Part-time wages have risen from about $12 an hour to more than $17 in the past few years. The city has also added another full-time position and more part-timers — one being a former junior lifeguard camp attendee.
Dylan Feger, 17, spent his summer in 2020 learning water rescue from Clearwater lifeguards. Now, they’re his co-workers. His parents had summer jobs as lifeguards, and Feger said they pushed him to give lifeguarding a try.
“I love helping people out,” he said. “It’s a big part of this job.”
Brafford has worked as a lifeguard for 22 years. He said retaining staff hasn’t been a problem. Getting people to give lifeguarding a chance has been.
“What better way to spend your summers and your time off from school than doing something like this, you know, doing something that makes a difference,” he said. “I’m biased, but I think it’s the greatest job ever.”