This summer, Americans across the country are going to have to find new ways to beat the heat. A nationwide lifeguard shortage is expected to leave thousands of public pools closed and beaches under “Swim At Your Own Risk” rules.
“To start off, this is the worst I've ever seen it and I've been in the industry a long time,” said Bernard Fisher II, who has been the director of health and safety at the American Lifeguard Association for over 25 years.
According to data collected by the American Lifeguard Association, Fisher estimated that nearly half of all the pools in the U.S. will be affected this summer.
“Here we are this year, everybody wants to take a vacation, they want to go to their hotel with a garden pool. They want to go to their community pool. They wanted to go to the beach,” said Fisher. “But the problem is, we're almost starting from ground zero.”
Although exacerbated by the pandemic, Fisher said that lifeguarding has been on the decline for decades. Some of this is in part to the decline in teenagers working summer jobs.
In 2000, more than half of the teenagers in the U.S. were working a summer job. In 2019, only 35.8% of teens worked over the summer. The number dropped even more during the pandemic and fewer than a third of U.S. teens worked in the summer of 2020, according to a 2021 study by the Pew Research Center.
Fewer teenagers are entering the workforce, and, due to the pandemic, many lifeguard certification training sessions were postponed or canceled. Now entering the third summer of COVID-19, for those who may have already been certified, their two year lifeguard certificates have expired, leading to an even larger deficit of working lifeguards.
“[Lifeguard] candidates come into the workforce at the age of 15, 16, 17 years of age, and usually stay with us until their junior or senior year of university,” said Fisher. “With the first year of the pandemic. We didn't get the new recruits. We didn't have the ability to renew the certifications that were expiring from two years prior.”
Fisher said that the pandemic also disrupted seasonal lifeguards who come to the U.S. through the J-1 visa program over the summer. The program was established In 2011 by the federal government for scholars, professors and visitors obtaining medical or business training within the United States.
Before the pandemic, the American Lifeguard Association would train about 300,000 new candidates every year, including nearly 50,000 lifeguards who were sponsored through the J-1 visa program.
"Because of the lack of training that we had over the past two years, and also the lack of the J-1 visa candidates coming in as strongly as they they were... We haven't even reached pre pandemic enrollment times," said Fisher. "So with that said, we have a very serious problem in enrollment now."
Fisher said he worries that not only will there be a lack of lifeguard supervision in public places with water, but also fewer people learning how to swim.
“In order to be a swim instructor, you have to be a lifeguard,” said Fisher, who said that the few swim instructors may be pulled to sit as a lifeguard rather than teach classes this summer due to the shortage. “The first thing you want to do is teach a child how to swim to prevent drowning… Some of these kids have not been in the water for two years, or ever.”
Every year in the United States, the Centers for Disease Control and Prevention estimates that nearly 4,000 people will die from unintentional drownings, meaning an average of 11 drowning deaths per day.
For kids who don’t know how to swim, Fisher suggested that family members designate a responsible adult during pool and beach days to watch the water and to get a properly fitted U.S. Coast Guard life jacket for novice swimmers.
“It's very important, especially this year and the future years until we can overcome [the lifeguard shortage.] Life jackets save lives and of course proper supervision is always necessary,” said Fisher.
Ultimately, Fisher said that pool and beach closures are a loss to the community, but a larger loss for kids and summer joy.
“Our kids, our youth, the young ones that enjoy getting out to the neighborhood pools and having a great time with their parents. Some of my fondest memories are being at the pool, being at the beach with my parents. It's true bonding,” said Fisher. “Also what better place to meet your neighbor than down at your community pool on a hot, hot summer day?”