Last weekend was the first time in recent memory that the city had to close a pool because there were not enough lifeguards to staff all the city’s pools at once.
The city is taking steps to ensure that it will not happen again this summer.
Lexington Parks & Recreation is offering a free Red Cross lifeguard certification class to people who commit to work for the city’s pools for the rest of the summer. The class starts Saturday and is open to people ages 15 and older.
Last summer, the city had 92 lifeguards on staff at one point. As of Wednesday, it had 74, said Monica Conrad, director of Lexington’s parks and recreation department.
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Conrad said the city decided to close the Picadome pool last weekend because it is the least-used of the city pools. She said the city was in a difficult position because too many of its lifeguards needed to be off work at the same time.
In the past, Conrad said, the city required lifeguards to work all summer without days off, but that limits the number of people who will apply. Because most lifeguards are high school and college students, Conrad said they sometimes need to leave the job for camps, college orientations and other events.
“Every year we hire throughout the entire swimming season,” she said.
While it is uncommon for an entire pool to be closed, Conrad said parts of the city’s aquatic centers are sometimes closed because of a lack of lifeguards on duty. For example, on Saturday evening the diving pool at Woodland Park was closed. Conrad said that in such circumstances, the aquatic centers give priority to keeping areas open that everyone, including children, can use.
“They were switching people around to cover the busiest part of the pool,” she said.
Normally, people who want to be lifeguards are required to pay for their own certification, which can cost $250 to $300, depending on the class.
Lifeguards’ starting pay is between $9.75 and $10.25 an hour.
Free certification is an attempt to “try to get more kids to participate in the program,” Conrad said. “It’s important to us that we’ve got good people sitting in those chairs.”
Participants must attend four classes at the Woodland Aquatic Center. The first from 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. Saturday. Others are 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. Sunday, 9 a.m. to 5 p.m. June 30 and 1 p.m. to 8 p.m. July 1.
Participants who complete the classes are guaranteed a job working 20 to 40 hours a week at the city’s aquatic facilities, the city said in a news release.
The problem of having enough lifeguards is not unique to Lexington.
Portland, Ore.; Indianapolis, and Raleigh, N.C. have all struggled to fill lifeguard positions at city pools. Some cities have closed pools or parts of them, or limited the hours or number of people allowed inside.
Austin, Texas, tackled the problem by working with the Austin Independent School District and YMCA to provide a program that teaches high school students to swim and concludes with a free certification course in lifeguarding.
Chris Brewster, liaison for the United States Lifesaving Association, said a lack of lifeguards tends to be a local or regional issue that cities confront and “come up with ways to solve it in future seasons,” rather than an ongoing nationwide problem.
In some cases, he said, cities put themselves in the position of waiting until swim season to find out whether enough youth are willing to spend their own time and money to get the certification.
“Recruiting lifeguards is like recruiting any other type of employees,” he said. “... It’s just a matter of whether they’re interested in the job.”