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Trying to stay afloat: Lifeguard shortage impacting swimming, lessons this summer in Spokane area

UPDATED: Wed., June 9, 2021

Traffic moves past a billboard advertising open YMCA jobs at the corner of Trent Avenue and Pines Road on Wednesday in Spokane Valley.  (KATHY PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Traffic moves past a billboard advertising open YMCA jobs at the corner of Trent Avenue and Pines Road on Wednesday in Spokane Valley. (KATHY PLONKA/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

Depending on where you live, it might be tougher to get in the pool this summer or find a swim lesson for your kid.

There’s a lifeguard shortage in Spokane County. Most pools have had difficulty hiring lifeguards, which in some cases will mean truncated swimming seasons for the general public and fewer swimming lessons available for children, say employees with those facilities.

Aquatics directors say the coronavirus pandemic is mainly to blame.

In Washington, pools were closed for most of 2020. That meant demand for lifeguards disappeared.

The pandemic and pool closures also meant many lifeguards couldn’t find classes to get certified or recertified. Getting recertified is easier in the 30 days after a certification expires. After that 30-day window, people have to go through the standard $250, 30-hour training course all over again.

Lifeguard certifications last two years, so about half of all U.S. lifeguards had their certifications expire last year, Spokane County Recreation Program Manager Sarah Fitzgerald said.

It’s unlikely the lifeguard ranks will be replenished in time for this summer. Several swimming pool operators are advertising aggressively and encouraging people to apply as they try to hire the lifeguards.

If there isn’t a wave of applicants soon, some pools will continue to have limited hours and offerings this year.

“The greatest impact will be swim lessons, for sure,” YMCA of the Inland Northwest Aquatics Director Emily Potter-Smith said.

Not all in the same boat

Brad Wainwright is Deer Park’s maintenance supervisor. He runs the city’s pool, and right now he’s not sure it will open this year.

“To make a pool function, I need a minimum of eight lifeguards,” Wainwright said Tuesday. “We have zero.”

Wainwright got an application Wednesday from an already-certified lifeguard, but that still leaves him seven short. The pool opens July 1, so Deer Park has three weeks to get fully staffed.

For Deer Park, this situation isn’t entirely unprecedented. Wainwright said he’s had a hard time finding lifeguards for the last decade. Five years ago, he couldn’t get enough lifeguards and the pool never opened.

Wainwright said he has called cities and pool directors in the area to find a place where prospective lifeguards can get certified.

“Either they are not offering classes right now or their classes are full,” Wainwright said.

The Deer Park City Council voted to raise its pay for lifeguards. If the pool is able to open, a Deer Park lifeguard will make $22 an hour this summer, with a 30-hour-per-week guarantee. Before the council’s decision, Wainwright said the job paid roughly minimum wage.

Lifeguards at the YMCA and for the Spokane city and county pools start in the $13-per-hour range, which is close to Washington’s minimum wage.

Spokane County and the city are in better shape when it comes to staffing lifeguards than Deer Park, though.

Fitzgerald said the county’s Southside pool is fully staffed. The Northside facility in Colbert needs 30 lifeguards and currently has 22.

Fianna Dickson, the city’s parks and recreation communications manager, said Spokane’s pools have nearly all the lifeguards they need, though the Shadle and Hillyard pools could use a few more lifeguards.

On Monday, the City Council set aside $220,000 for its aquatics program, citing revenue losses in 2020. The city shortened its swim season by two weeks on the front end, due to budget constraints.

Spokane Valley’s lifeguard shortage is severe, although not quite as drastic as Deer Park’s.

The city contracts with the YMCA for lifeguards, and the YMCA only has enough lifeguards to run one of Spokane Valley’s three outdoor pools this summer.

Potter-Smith would like to have 30 lifeguards for each of Spokane Valley’s public outdoor pools. Right now, she has about 25, less than a third of the 90 she’d aim for in a typical year.

Rather than pick one pool and keep it open all summer, the city decided the fairest solution would be to rotate between its three pools.

“We don’t want to just open one pool and have other neighborhoods suffer,” said John Bottelli, Spokane Valley’s parks, recreation and facilities director, at a City Council meeting.

The pools will open in rotation for two-week stretches. The Park Road pool will open first. People can swim there from June 19 to June 26. Valley Mission pool will go next, opening from June 28 to July 10. Terrace View will open from July 12 to July 24. Then the rotation will start again.

The YMCA has three indoor pools in Spokane and Spokane Valley. Those facilities are shorthanded, too. Potter-Smith said she’d ideally have 40 lifeguards at each but can get by with 30. She currently has about 20 lifeguards at each branch.

“There’s a ton of teenagers that want to work,” Potter-Smith said. “The problem we’re mostly seeing is getting them through training.”

Swimmers cool off in Comstock Pool, Mon., Aug. 19, 2019.  (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
Swimmers cool off in Comstock Pool, Mon., Aug. 19, 2019. (COLIN MULVANY/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)

‘Mad dash’: Loss of lessons

Parents couldn’t get their kids into swim lessons last summer, which means many parents are especially eager for their kids to learn how to swim this year.

“It’s a mad dash to get kids into swim lessons,” Potter-Smith said.

Far fewer kids will be able to attend swim lessons this year, though, for two main reasons: One, swim instructors are lifeguards, so the lifeguard shortage impacts lessons, too. Two, COVID-19 social distancing guidelines mean each lesson has fewer children than it would normally. Even if there were enough lifeguards, there wouldn’t be as many slots available for kids.

“They basically fill up the day we open up registration,” Fitzgerald said. “It’s a flood of registrations as soon as we hit publish.”

Potter-Smith said she doesn’t expect the YMCA’s pools to return to being fully staffed until the end of September at the earliest. It will simply take that long to get enough lifeguards certified.

“The YMCA is known as the world’s largest swim lesson provider,” Potter-Smith said. “So it’s not something that we’ve put to the wayside at all. It’s something that we will bring back.”

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