Teaching more kids to swim right now could be among several long-term solutions to the lifeguard shortage, officials and experts say.

New York City needs to be more “forward thinking” in recruiting and better utilizing the Department of Education’s school pools, Mayor Eric Adams said this week.

More resources would ideally prevent the scramble the Parks Department has been in this summer to staff pools and beaches. 

While there are 50 pools inside DOE buildings, mostly in high schools, only 27 are currently open according to a department spokesperson. The remaining 23 are in various stages of renovation.

“I don’t know why we waited until this crisis happened… but we have pools that are being underutilized,” Adams said at an unrelated press conference Tuesday.  “We have to be more forward thinking in teaching swimming.”

Parks Commissioner Sue Donoghue called it “a big priority.”

The Education Department spokesperson said some of the schools with pools use them for physical education or partner with swim organizations that teach people how to swim and also train to become a lifeguard.

They also work with the city’s health department on the Making Waves program, which provides free swim lessons and water-safety instruction. Since launching in 2015, more than 10,000 kids ages 6 to 18 have participated, the spokesperson said. 

“We need to be better prepared for lifeguard issues, start training them, certify, look at water safety,” the mayor said. “We need to think outside of the box so we’re not unprepared in the upcoming year.”

Failing to Keep Up

Although the city’s Parks Department aims to hire around 1,400 lifeguards each year, as of this week there were just over 850 guards hired, according to a spokesperson.

The city’s lifeguard shortage resulted in the cancellation of the popular lap-swimming and learn-to-swim programs at public pools. The Parks Department is also doing rolling closures and enforcing capacity limits at larger pools, and has shut some beaches down to swimmers.

Early this month, the city struck a deal to temporarily boost the starting pay of lifeguards from $16 an hour to more than $19 an hour. Lifeguards will also get a year-end bonus if they stay the entire season, which ends a week after Labor Day. 

Young people swim at the P.S. 20 mini pool in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, July 8, 2022.

The city also later instituted an easier test for lifeguards to specifically watch shallower mini pools — but some experts say the city should go further to ensure more lifeguards.  

Robert Sorensen, a former swim team coach at New York University who now manages the school’s indoor pool, said he and another colleague, Matt Malina, the director and founder of water education program NYC H20, spoke with the Parks Department last month about ways to increase the number of guards.

“Parks has failed to keep up with modern lifeguard programs and procedures,” Sorensen told THE CITY. 

Pooling Resources

One suggestion is to have the Parks Department work with DOE to start training lifeguards right after the Public School Athletic League’s swim season, which ends in late winter to early spring. 

“Parks has established programs separate from the ‘lifeguard school’ location, however

more swimmers would be more likely to participate in a training program in their own high school rather than travel to a central site,” he told THE CITY. 

The Parks Department’s current “lifeguard school” is held at the agency’s own facilities. 

Sorensen also suggested the city change its qualifying test, which currently requires a candidate to swim 440 yards in 6 minutes and 20 seconds for a beach post, and 7:20 for a pool post. Those distances are far greater than most other municipalities, as THE CITY has reported previously, and based on high school and college distance swimming standards from 1962, Sorense noted. 

The Parks Department could also create easier tests by adopting an American Red Cross course called “shallow water lifeguarding,” he said. Most public pools in New York City are five feet deep or less.

While the city recently implemented this type of test for smaller pools, Sorensen believes  Parks “could have gone much further and adopted it for virtually all shallow water swimming pools.” 

He also noted the city should have a better part-time lifeguard program to encourage more people to work on weekends or other days. 

Multiple people who have spoken with THE CITY have said one problem with recruiting and retaining lifeguards is rooted in well-documented issues within the city’s lifeguard unions. 

Peter Stein, the head of the NYC Lifeguard Supervisors Local 508 of DC 37, declined to comment in a phone call with THE CITY.

Donoghue, the parks commissioner, told THE CITY on Rockaway Beach Wednesday that they’re already looking ahead to next summer to ensure there are enough bay watchers, noting work they do with the DOE on swim classes and other additions they can make at the end of the summer.

“We’re already meeting about and thinking about how we can expand the pool — no pun intended — of lifeguards,” she said.