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Adams Floats Possibility of Changing Lifeguard Policies to Boost Staffing Numbers

Mayor’s look at rule changes comes after THE CITY highlighted a newly enforced rule that prevents municipal workers from moonlighting — and two drownings on Rockaway Beach.

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An empty lifeguard station near Beach 96th Street in The Rockaways. Aug. 10, 2021.

Aria Velasquez/THE CITY

Mayor Eric Adams on Tuesday said he wants to give lifeguards better equipment and training and will try to salvage canceled pool programs amidst a lifeguard shortage that has hit New York City.

Adams’ vow to look at policy changes  — as well as other safety suggestions from lifeguards — comes after two people drowned Friday evening at Queens’ Rockaway Beach minutes after the shore officially closed for the day, and on a stretch that was already off-limits to swimmers.  

An anticipated lifeguard shortage forced the Parks Department to cancel learn to swim, water aerobics and other classes at the city’s 53 public pools for the second years in a row — and the mayor wants to see if lifeguards who pass less stringent qualifications can teach them, he said at an unrelated press conference Tuesday. 

“We’re trying to see if we can rethink some of these rules to address the shortage because you know it breaks all our hearts to see a young person die merely because they want to use the beach,” he said.

“Our goal is to find a safe way to ensure that we can open as many beaches as possible and have as many lifeguards as possible.”

Adams also said he is looking into the feasibility of providing better equipment to the city’s lifeguards, including two-way radios and all-terrain vehicles to use during emergencies. 

Currently, lifeguards do not have any access to ATVs although they’re used by other Parks Department employees at beaches, including Enforcement Patrol staff and beach cleaners. It’s part of larger concerns about lifeguard management highlighted by THE CITY on Friday. 

“I like the idea of allowing them to have ATVs or some way to get to a stretch of the beach,” the mayor said. “And I love the idea of coordination with FDNY.”

A spokesperson for the fire department did not immediately respond to a request for comment on possible coordination.

Turbulent Waters

On Friday, THE CITY also highlighted the longstanding issues within Parks’ lifeguard division, which patrols 11 miles of beaches and 53 pools across the five boroughs. 

As of Tuesday, there were just 529 certified lifeguards available to work, with a final goal of between 1,400 and 1,500, according to Parks Department spokesperson Crystal Howard. 

That small fraction of necessary staff is reflective of a steady years-long decline in the number of lifeguards as well as an acute shortage brought on by the pandemic and larger labor issues.

Would-be candidates can still get certified up until July 4, as long as they pass rigorous swimming tests that veteran lifeguards say are controlled mostly by the union heads at DC 37’s Local 461 (lifeguards) and Local 508 (their supervisors).

The pool at the Major Owens Recreation Center in Crown Heights Union Bedford Armory, Sept. 8, 2021.

Jason Scott Jones/THE CITY

As of last week, 923 people had taken the qualifying swim test, but just 240 passed, according to the Parks Department. 

While city beaches have been open since Memorial Day weekend, activities at public pools will get started on June 28. Because of the shortage, the pool season is set to begin without several specialized programs, including Early Bird and Night Owl lap swims, water aerobics, day camps and swim lessons . 

Veteran lifeguards say a nationwide shortage is just one of many problems within the Parks Department’s lifeguard division, which was the subject of a New York magazine story in June 2020 that prompted a Department of Investigation probe.

Dangerous Confusion

Lifeguards who spoke to THE CITY also alleged that experienced members have been pushed out as retaliation for participating in a union trial prompted by DOI’s investigation — and that the test is not transparent.

“If the mayor is really sincere about putting lifeguards on ATVs to help make rescues, I would be very happy to hear that,” said Janet Fash, a lifeguard since 1979 although she hasn’t taken the test yet this year. 

“I hope the mayor and the new [Parks] commissioner are able to do something.”

Peter Stein, head of Lifeguard Supervisors Local 508, and Alma Diamond, of NYC Lifeguards Local 461,  did not respond to messages seeking comment. 

The Parks Department deferred to the mayor’s comments.

The lifeguard shortage is compounded by confusion around closed beaches as a result of a sand replenishment and jetty project that shuts down various stretches of Rockaway Beach to swimmers at different times this summer.

As of Tuesday, swimming was prohibited from Beach 93rd to Beach 116th street, home to some of the most popular areas. 

“The overwhelming majority of New York City residents and visitors cannot distinguish the difference between a beach that’s open for swimming and just open for sunbathing, as per the Parks Department’s plan,” said one former lifeguard, who spent years as a beach supervisor. 

“Continuing to give people access to just sand implies that they have access to the water, and tragedies like this will continue to happen.”

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