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City’s Most Dangerous Beach Short on Lifeguard Supervisors

Chiefs and lieutenants direct scheduling and oversee rescue operations, but miles of Rockaway Beach where multiple drownings took place now lack these leaders.

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On a hot summer day, people flocked to Rockaway Beach near Beach 97th Street, July 17, 2023.

Katie Honan/THE CITY

New York City’s lifeguard shortage has extended to its leadership ranks, with miles of beaches lacking chiefs or lieutenants to patrol its most treacherous waters, the Parks Department confirmed.

On Rockaway Beach — where nearly a dozen people have drowned since 2020 — six of nine lifeguard “shacks” are without chiefs, multiple lifeguards told THE CITY. 

The staffing shortage leaves most of the 11 miles along the Queens beachfront without supervisors to direct scheduling, dispatch lifeguards, and oversee rescue operations and ocean training. 

“We are aware that there are several supervisory lifeguard positions that are currently not filled,” said Meghan Lalor, a Parks Department spokesperson, although she did not confirm which shacks were without chiefs. “We are working to post for these vacancies and hope to fill them expeditiously.”

On beaches without supervisors, “acting supervisors” will work with borough coordinators to schedule breaks and assign lifeguards, according to a parks official. Borough coordinators are responsible for some oversight of the beach and swimming pools.

It is unclear if the lack of supervisors extends to other beaches across the city, including Orchard Beach in The Bronx and Coney Island. The Parks Department did not provide further details. 

The dearth of leaders on the beach comes as the city continues to contend with a lifeguard shortage. The department’s annual goal is to employ between 1,400 and 1,500 lifeguards, but this summer, just 750 are scattered across 14 miles of beaches and dozens of city pools.

Lifeguards say the lifeguard station on the busy beach at Beach 97th Street has been closed all summer, July 18, 2023.

Katie Honan/THE CITY

Lalor said chief and lieutenant lifeguard roles are posted internally, and the requirements are three years as a lifeguard before becoming a lieutenant, and two years as a lieutenant to become eligible to be a chief. 

The Parks Department will reach out to active lifeguards about the jobs, she said.

Multiple current and former lifeguards who spoke to THE CITY on the condition of anonymity for fear of retaliation, however, said promotions can be secretive, with little information on how to become a chief. 

Beyond time on the beach or at the pool, it’s unclear what further qualifications are required for the jobs. Unlike other civil service jobs — including police officer and firefighter — there is no promotional exam. 

The promotions, the lifeguards said, are not made by the Parks Department, but instead by leaders of the powerful and controversial union that represents lifeguards and lifeguard supervisors, Local 461 and Local 508 respectively, both within District Council 37. 

A spokesperson for DC37, Thea Setterbo, did not respond to a request for comment. A spokesperson for the Parks Department did not respond to a request for comment about the lifeguards disputing the promotion process. 

Recipe for Disaster

The 11 miles of Rockaway Beach, with its riptides and strong currents, are considered to be among the most dangerous in the five boroughs, lifeguards told THE CITY. 

There have been two fatal drownings so far this summer in Rockaway: A 14-year-old boy drowned July 2 after lifeguards directed people out of the ocean because of a storm. 

On July 7, lifeguards rescued a 32-year-old swimmer, Nima Dhundup Lama, at Beach 93rd Street while the beaches were open. Lama was rushed to a nearby hospital in critical condition, but died the next day, multiple friends and the medical examiner’s office told THE CITY.

“Nima was a true gem with the most sincere and loving soul, cherished and adored by all who knew him,” a friend wrote on the fundraising page for Lama.

Last summer, shortly after lifeguards went off duty, two people drowned within minutes of each other in Rockaway. 

In 2021, Matthew Wiszowaty drowned on Beach 101st Street, where swimming had been prohibited. And in 2020, at least six people drowned off Rockaway Beach when lifeguards were not on duty, including one person at Jacob Riis Park, which is operated by the National Park Service.  

The lack of supervision could make a dangerous beach even more deadly, one longtime lifeguard told THE CITY. 

“Twenty years ago, each shack had a chief and two lieutenants,” the lifeguard, who requested anonymity for fear of retaliation, told THE CITY.

“Now you’ll find a supervisor in each area and then an untrained ‘acting’ lieutenant to fill in the holes where a supervisor isn’t available.”

Further complicating staffing issues: the lifeguard shack at Beach 97th Street — one of the busiest on the peninsula because of its proximity to a large concession stand and parking lot — has been closed all summer, according to multiple lifeguards. Lifeguards have been dispatched from other nearby stations to cover that shoreline, they said.

A Parks Department official disputed this and said the shack is still open, but could not provide an operational document showing which lifeguards work there.

Recent construction projects to build new jetties and replenish the beach with more sand have also contributed to making swimmers more vulnerable, the lifeguard added. Rip currents form around jetties, and on low spots or breaks in sand bars, according to the National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration.

“You have a very unstable physical beach due to the dredging and rock jetties,” the lifeguard said.

“When you combine the physically unstable beach of fresh sand and new rock jetties with the utter lack of supervision, it’s a recipe for disaster.”

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