INDIANAPOLIS (AP) — Manager Ashley Ford strode along the edge of one of Indianapolis’ five open pools, watching children jump off a diving board or jump into the water from a curved slide. Four lifeguards, whistling at the ready, watched from their high chairs arranged around the water.
With a dozen of the city’s pools closed due to a shortage of lifeguards, families sometimes queue at Frederick Douglass Park for more than an hour before opening, Ford said. Many days it reaches its capacity.
A shortage of national lifeguards, exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic, has prompted communities like Indianapolis to cut back on pools and hours. In other places in the United States, swimming areas go without supervisors.
This leaves some Americans with fewer or riskier options, even if a significant portion of the nation experiences a second heat wave in as many weeks. According to public health experts, the risk of drowning is significantly reduced if lifeguards are present.
“That’s my biggest thing, making everyone safe,” Ford said.
The American Lifeguard Association estimates the shortage affects one-third of U.S. swimming pools. Bernard J. Fisher II, director of health and safety at the association, expects this to grow to half of all swimming pools by August, when many teenage lifeguards go back to school.
“It’s a disaster,” Fisher said.
Summer shortages aren’t uncommon, but U.S. pools are also dealing with the fallout from earlier in the pandemic, when they closed and lifeguard certification stopped, Fisher said. Starting pay lags behind many other jobs, although some cities are ramping up incentives.
Indy Parks and Recreation is employing 100 lifeguards this year, when that would normally be double, said Ford, who worked for the agency for 20 years. Even as lifeguards from closed neighboring pools expand open facilities, pools in Indianapolis are still required to close each day for an hour-long lunch and cleaning break.
When a local pool isn’t open, young people can go swimming in places without lifeguards, Fisher said. That can lead to more drownings, which disproportionately affects people of color. In the US, black people under 29 are 1.5 times more likely to drown than white Americans of the same age, according to the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention.
About 330,000 people take the lifeguarding course of the American Red Cross every year. That figure shrank as many pools closed due to the pandemic, but is now rising, Jenelle Eli, senior director of media relations for the American Red Cross, said in a statement to The Associated Press.
Indy Parks requires his lifeguards to complete a course in which they swim 100 yards, tread water for a minute without using their hands, and retrieve a 10-pound object from the bottom of a pool. The starting wage is $15 an hour, up from $13 an hour earlier this year. Those who stay all season will receive a $100 retention bonus, Boyd said.
“I’ve been trying to get some of my friends to want summer jobs and have money in my pocket,” said sophomore lifeguard Donald Harris (17). “They just said lifeguards are not for them.”
In Indiana state parks, lifeguards are charged $11 an hour. All 37 state facilities will remain open, but some will operate on restricted hours, said Terry Coleman, director of the Division of Indiana State Parks. In addition, many state parks in Indiana have shallow swimming areas without lifeguards, Coleman said.
“We are looking at possible incentives for perhaps the 2023 recreational season, but nothing concrete is yet,” he said.
In Maine, several state parks started their season without lifeguards, and visitors will be notified at the park entrance when lifeguards are not on duty, said Jim Britt, spokesman for the Maine Department of Agriculture, Conservation and Forestry. The state pays lifeguards about $16 an hour.
“It’s a concern,” Britt said. “There’s no two ways about it. We want lifeguards to be present and on duty.”
Chicago, which has one of the largest water programs in the country — 77 public swimming pools and 22 beaches serving a population of nearly 2.75 million — has shifted pool opening day from June 24 to July 5.
“Chicago families rely on our park programs over the summer, so we’re not giving up,” Chicago Park District Superintendent Rosa Escareño said in a press release.
Escareño attributed the scarcity in part to “mass layoffs” – referring to post-pandemic labor shortages.
Chicago Park District pays $15.88 per hour and now offers bonuses of $600, up from $500 in May, to new hires who stay over the summer. It also relaxed residency requirements, meaning applicants don’t have to live in the city.
One reason for the hesitation of applicants unrelated to the pandemic could be: lifeguard sex abuse scandal that rocked Chicago’s Park District last year.
Escareño said the organization has since strengthened its accountability and reporting systems.
“I think the most important thing right now is to make sure we open safely and that we give the highest priority to safety, not just the safety of our residents, but also the safety of our employees,” she said.
Associated Press reporter David Sharp in Portland, Maine, contributed to this report. Savage reported from Chicago. She and Rodgers are corps members for the Associated Press/Report for America Statehouse News Initiative. Report for America is a national, not-for-profit service program that places journalists in local newsrooms to report on classified issues.