Supplement Feature - October 2022
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Stand Guard

Dealing With Lifeguard Shortages, and Other Concerns in Waterpark

By Joe Bush

The American Lifeguard Association reported this past summer that a third of U.S. pools were affected by staff shortages, leading to pool closures, or limited hours of operation and late openings at the beginning of the season. The nation's low unemployment rate, the slowdown in training and expiring certifications due to COVID restrictions are the main culprits. While some municipalities and businesses resorted to signing bonuses, paying for certification and increasing wages to compete for the existing lifeguard pool, that doesn't solve the dearth of properly trained people.

Lifeguards are necessary to operate waterparks as well, and they are a crucial aspect of safety and risk management plans, said Joe Stefanyk, a senior director for Jeff Ellis & Associates, an aquatic risk management company.

To understand how lifeguards fit into a facility's effort to attract and keep customers through providing feelings of security, Stefanyk said it's important to clarify the differences between the terms "risk management" and "safety."

Stefanyk said that in layman's terms, risk management is "knowing what might cause you or the organization harm, taking steps to minimize the likelihood that those things might occur, and having a plan to control the impact should they occur."

On the other hand, safety, Stefanyk said, is a product of risk management, in that the process of identifying and evaluating risks, then taking steps to mitigate or minimize those risks leads to an environment where the potential for harm or negative impact to individuals or the organization is minimized or eliminated.

"As aquatic facility operators, we all seek to provide a safe environment for our team members and the patrons who visit our facilities," Stefanyk said. "We must continuously apply good risk management practices in order to achieve the safety results we seek. Risk management must be an ongoing process in order to achieve the desired level of safety our guests expect and deserve."

Asked about the evolution of those two terms, Stefanyk referenced one of the top concerns in aquatics and who is at the front lines for it. Stefanyk said drowning has always been at the top of the list when it comes to potential risks at an aquatic facility, and said risk managers at guarded facilities identified a few consistencies among causes:

  • Lifeguards were inattentive or inconsistent in scanning their zones of protection.
  • There were portions of attractions that did not have zone coverage.
  • Lifeguards were unable to clearly see all levels—surface, middle and bottom of the water—of the zone due to occlusions such as glare, reflection, refraction or even the design of the pool, thematic elements or aquatic features in and around the pool.
  • The size of the assigned zones of protection were simply too large for the lifeguard to be able to provide adequate swimmer protection.

Stefanyk said his company has helped respond to these issues with methods of training that emphasize scanning, ensuring lifeguards can see the entirety of their zone from their assigned position, and ensuring that they can respond to an incident in a timely manner. Ongoing training includes regular evaluation of lifeguards' recognition of distressed swimmers through drills.

"It is clear that the standard and expectations for swimmer protection have taken a significant change for the better and resulted in an increase in safety," Stefanyk said.

So lifeguards are likely a facility's most important employee, but if it's difficult to find enough, what is to be done?

Juan Richards is director of marine and waterpark operations for a Atlantis Resorts in Dubai, United Arab Emirates, and while his region isn't experiencing the same labor shortage, 23 of his 25 years in the industry were spent in the U.S. He has advice for his American operational colleagues, and it isn't to simply offer more money.

"They have to gear their culture toward the job being fun in any way possible," said Richards. "It seems most individuals either don't need to work or can get paid to work in a venue outside of the aquatic industry while making more money with less effort. Workers need to wake up and say to themselves, 'I want to go to work today because I'm scared I'll miss out on something if I don't.'

"You can play the minimum wage game with an extra 50 cents or dollar increase per hour, but is it sustainable? Is this going to solve your labor shortage issues? More than likely you'll end up doing this every year and not see a huge increase in (hiring)."

Wess Long is president of StarGuard ELITE, which advises on aquatic safety. He said adding to the woes of the COVID training interruptions and the nation's low unemployment rate is a cultural change and the increase in facilities like waterparks.