Lifeguard shortage creates troubled waters

Access to Vancouver pools, beaches and lessons shrinking

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By ANNABEL BESSEM and ALY GLENN

As soon as summer comes around, Vancouver area beaches and pools are flooded with folks ready to dive in. Until an accident happens and somebody gets into trouble in the water.

Before 911 is called, a city lifeguard is usually there to make the rescue.

While the public sees firefighters, police and paramedics as first responders, lifeguards are often overlooked despite being on the front line at Vancouver beaches and outdoor pools.

Kimiko Hirakida, a current education manager at Lifesaving Society BC & Yukon and a previous lifeguard said without a doubt, lifeguards should be seen in the same light as other first responders.

“Lifeguards are there before firefighters, before paramedics and before the police are there. They are the first line of defence, and I think it is important for them to be considered first responders,” Hirakida said.

“I strongly believe that they are first responders. I’ve felt this way my whole career. I’ve responded to multiple emergencies and coordinated several emergencies and in my role as a lifeguard and lifeguard supervisor I think that there is a place where you have to think on a pool deck or at the beach,” said Hirakida.

B.C. — like other parts of Canada — has been plagued with a lifeguard shortage ever since the COVID pandemic took hold four years ago.

And while Vancouver and other Lower Mainland cities have offered incentives to fill vacancies, shortages have led to reduced pool hours and parents struggling to find swimming lessons for their kids.

Hirakida said it is now much easier to get hired as a lifeguard than it used to be. And it requires less intensive training.

“I think the number one thing is community pools are shortening their hiring process. So, it’s not making it such a long hiring process and getting people hired. Five years ago, you used to have to go through quite an extensive tryout like physical tryout,” said Hirakida.

But she thinks many younger people don’t think being a lifeguard pays well enough.

“With the ongoing increase in prices of most things in Vancouver, students who would usually be of age to become a lifeguard working full time, don’t have to pay rent yet so therefore don’t have as much motivation to work as much,” Hirakida said.

According to Statistics Canada, lifeguard wages remain consistent in hourly pay. However 44 per cent of Canadians are worried about the increased costs of living. Lifeguards make considerably less than other first responders.

Hirakida also thinks attitudes among younger workers has shifted because of the pandemic.

“Right now, most people, they’re living with their parents longer so that they don’t have that extra, you know, outgoing money of rent or mortgage, so that they aren’t necessarily needing to make as much money, and they might only want to work one shift a week,” she said. “So, it’s really not necessarily a shortage, it’s just a change in availability.”

Hiring fairs and ads have been posted in the last year in British Columbia to try to increase and retain lifeguards. However, certain municipalities still struggle to hire lifeguards in its pre-COVID numbers.

Could fewer lifeguards mean more people are at risk of drowning?

According to Parachute, Canada’s national charity dedicated to injury prevention, drowning costs Canadians $191 million per year. This is based on 280 deaths, 217 hospitalizations, 1,700 emergency room visits and 18 disabilities. The cost breakdown for each incident by type in 2021 was: $623,226 per fatal drowning death; $27,981 per hospitalization; $4,019 per emergency room visit cost; and $115,825 for each drowning-related disability.

The majority of the lifeguard positions are casual, but there is no guarantee that shifts will be available.

Tony Syskakis, aquatic supervisor at the City of Vancouver, told the Voice that the city is doing what it can to fill guard vacancies.

“I think we have hired 140 indoor lifeguards and last summer we hired I believe was an additional, 35 or 40 outdoor lifeguards,” said Syskakis.

The more guards that can be hired, the more pool hours can be offered to the public.

“This year…we’re hoping for between 170 and 200. We’ve hired a lot more indoor. So, we are hoping that some of those transfers to an increase in the outdoor staff team as well,” said Syskakis.

On several occasions last summer, the historic Kitislano Outdoor Pool had to close early despite line-ups outside because of staff shortages, the Voice has learned.

The Vancouver Park Board rebranded its lifeguard school, the Vancouver Aquatics Academy, which offers lifeguard training programs for nine to 15-year-olds.

On its website, the academy says Vancouver guards are paid more than those in Toronto — between $25.21 to $29.63 per hour with an additional 12 percent in lieu of benefits. Outdoor guards start at $30.81 an hour.

“The lifeguard shortage over the past few years has not only impacted access to safe swimming and program offerings but has put immense pressure on current lifeguards and swim instructors,” according to the website.

Higher wages should help alleviate the shortage this summer, Syskakis said.

Margery Duda, a current Facebook facilitator of Friends of Mount Pleasant Pool, said not only is Vancouver lacking lifeguards, but public pools as well. The outdoor pool at 16th Avenue and Ontario operated for 40 years before it was closed in 2009.

“The park board promised to replace the [Mount Pleasant] outdoor pool and included it in the park redevelopment plan in 2009,” said Duda.

But that never happened.

“If people aren’t even learning to swim in the first place, it’s going to make that much harder for them to become a lifeguard?” Duda said. “COVID is not the only reason why we don’t have enough lifeguards in Vancouver. And you know, New Westminster has lifeguards, Coquitlam has lifeguards and, you know, they also have swimming pools.”

Helen Fielding, an ex-lifeguard and member of Vancouver Society for Promotion of Outdoor Pools and Mount Pleasant pool, echoed Duda’s comments about shuttered pools not being replaced and the impact on children unable to get swimming lessons.

“Before the shortage of lifeguards, people would be able to be an instructor five to six mornings a week, and were not paid for the lessons they taught, they were taught for free, in the morning you taught swimming lessons for free,” Fielding said.

“That was part of the deal.”

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