With 14 miles of public beaches and more than 100 indoor and outdoor pools to oversee, New York City lifeguards have no shortage of work. But last year the city Department of Parks and Recreation faced a dire dearth of able bodies as the season of sun and surf rolled around.
Specialty programs, like popular early-morning lap swimming and swim lessons, had to be shut down. Pools and beaches faced rolling closures without enough staff to watch the water.
This year, the parks department is trying to buoy recruitment by starting early, tweaking the qualifying test and even offering remedial swim classes to would-be lifeguards who just miss the mark.
“The more we get, the easier it is to be able to try and assess what we have,” said Iris Rodriguez-Rosa, first deputy commissioner for the parks department, who oversees the program.
“We’re hoping and praying for the very best,” she added — noting Parks and Recreation is working with the city Department of Education and other agencies to recruit. It’s a big change for a system tightly controlled for years by the lifeguards’ union. (More on that later.)
The city also instituted a referral program for current lifeguards who recommend new lifeguards. The prize will likely be Parks Department swag, as any financial bonus is forbidden by contract rules.
To entice more lifeguards than last year, the city offered a temporary salary increase for newer guards, from $16 an hour to $19. But any permanent increase would go through the city’s Office of Labor Relations.
So, if you’re a strong swimmer who wants to help your fellow New Yorkers stay safe while having fun — and possibly get a great tan while you’re at it — read on. We’ve got you covered like SPF 30.
Here’s a quick guide to what it takes to be a New York City lifeguard — including some fitness tips from an international swimmer.
The First Hurdle
To even get in to “lifeguard school,” applicants have to swim 50 yards in a pool.
Appointments will be available through Jan. 20, Rodriguez-Rosa said; they began on Dec. 2. But, she noted, the department may extend that test depending on how many people pass the qualifying exam, which has changed.
As THE CITY reported last June, the swim test was known for being difficult and lacking transparency. Previously, applicants would have to swim the 50 yards in 35 seconds just to qualify for the 14-week training course. Generally, less than half of applicants passed the test.
But this year, swimmers can pass if they can make the swim in 45 seconds.
“We consulted with other entities and we felt that would put additional candidates into a class to be able to do that, it gives an opportunity to hone in on their skills and at the end of it all, be able to pass,” Rodriguez-Rosa told THE CITY.
“We always try to get as many as we can because the more the better.”
Tests are scheduled at seven pools across the city.
In addition to the qualifying swim time, applicants must be at least 16 years old by Memorial Day and have at least 20/30 vision in one eye and 20/40 in the other. Contact lenses and glasses are prohibited.
This is also the first year people taking swim tests will be told what time they clocked in the 50-yard swim. In previous years, candidates would only know if they passed or failed.
The change comes down to “communication and transparency,” Rodriguez-Rosa said.
Incentives to Keep Trying
For the first time ever, anyone who does not pass will be able to take free Saturday swim classes and then try again.
The classes, which focus on “speed, fitness/endurance, and stroke technique,” are being held at the Constance Baker Motley Recreation Center on East 54th Street in Manhattan.
Instructors there give swimmers personal assessment tips to improve their time and help them tread water for two minutes, which is also required for the final lifeguard exam.
“You have to have a certain level of fitness and endurance,” Maria Rezhylo, a former college swimmer who swam on the paralympic team for Ukraine and has taken the lifeguard test, told THE CITY.
Swimming with the correct form and with a strong kick — because your hands will be busy helping a victim during rescues — are also important, Rezhylo said.
“You want to pay attention to this technique when you’re rescuing a person because it defines how fast you get from point A to point B,” she added.
While it’s important to spend a lot of time actually swimming in a pool, Rezhylo — who gives private swim lessons in Florida and works remotely for a New York City swimming coach — suggests a strong cardio and lifting routine on land.
Exercises like deadlifts, pull ups and pushups help back and arm strength, and create a stronger core, she noted. These are skills that can help a lifeguard pull someone safely from the water.
“You need to have a certain stamina to do this,” she said.
On to Training
If you pass the qualifying exam, next up is the 16-week lifeguard-training program.
There you’ll learn things like rescue techniques and first aid, according to the parks department. While attending the training, you’ll also be allowed to practice for free at any of city parks’ 12 indoor pools.
That final swim test requires a candidate to swim 440 yards in six minutes and 40 seconds to get assigned to a beach, or seven minutes and 40 seconds to get sent to a pool.
In an effort to shore up staffing last summer, the parks department changed policy mid-stream to let candidates who failed the main test still oversee smaller pools that are only three feet deep. Those guards had to swim only 300 yards without stopping, using various strokes in good form, with no time restriction.
In addition to the wet tests, you also have to pass a written exam, around 20 questions that focus on lifeguard procedures and operations.
Once you complete a CPR course, you could get assigned to keep watch at a city pool or beach.
Last year’s shortage of lifeguards — which mirrored national trends — also put the spotlight on administrators of the corps, particularly those within NYC Lifeguard Supervisors Local 508 of District Council 37.
That union’s longtime leader, Peter Stein, has reportedly lorded over the job and was dubbed “Boss of the Beach” in a 2020 New York magazine article chronicling his 40 years in the position.
The shortage “is just another symptom of their mismanagement,” a lifeguard with 20 years of experience on the beach who asked to remain anonymous for fear of retribution, told THE CITY last spring.
Since becoming deputy commissioner in March, Rodriguez-Rosa has worked to change long-held practices within the lifeguard program that critics say came from the union — like, for the first time, telling test-takers their swimming times.
Many longtime lifeguards had complained that being the only ones who knew who passed or failed the test was one way the lifeguard union maintained control.
A spokesperson for DC37 declined to comment.
In October, the parks department closed all pools and held a first-ever meeting with lifeguards at the Chelsea Recreation Center in Manhattan. Some observers saw that as another move to lessen the union’s power since it was the first many longtime lifeguards had even interacted with top-level Parks and Rec officials.
“I met wonderful lifeguards who sit on the chair, some have come back five, six, seven, 10 years — I look at them and I marvel at them,” Rodriguez-Rosa said of the meeting.
And last month, she sent out a formal letter to all previous summer lifeguards to notify them of an open year-round position at a pool, another seeming leapfrog over Local 508.
“We have some positions open in the agency and we’re trying to do it in the right and equitable way,” she told THE CITY. “That did not exist in the past.”