When Barbara Byers, a senior research officer at the society, was asked if the shortage can be dangerous or even deadly, she said “it can be” in some cases at the beaches.
“The safest place to swim is where lifeguards are working,” said Byers, whose organization develops lifeguarding standards and training courses for municipalities.
But even if there aren’t enough lifeguards at the beaches due to the shortage, Byers said the public can’t always be prevented from going.
“We know there is a shortage because municipalities tell us that they do not have enough lifeguards with their current certification for all of the pools. They are hoping to have enough lifeguards by the time all indoor and outdoor pools open, which is the end of June,” she said.
Byers said the problem of not having enough lifeguards is not unique to Canada – it is also being reported across North America and the globe.
The shortages began in 2020 when many of the staff were let go amid the pandemic.
“They’ve moved on, taken other jobs, so they’re not coming back. Many pools have also been closed for two years until a couple of months ago,” said Byers.
Even during pre-pandemic days, Byers said Canada didn’t have enough lifeguards working, so the challenge is now to try and staff up all the pools.
“Add in the fact that it’s summer coming up and many municipalities have outdoor pools which require additional staff, it’s a real challenge,” she said.
She said while lifeguarding is not unique in its staffing problems as the country emerges from COVID-19 restrictions, the situation is unlike that faced by restaurants and other businesses because lifeguard training has to be updated every two years.
The Life Saving Society states on its website that people who want to become lifeguards will need to take courses like the Bronze Medallion and Bronze Cross to prepare them for water rescue skills and be trained in First Aid and CPR-C to provide lifesaving measures to victims.
The minimum age for applying is 16 years old.
Paul D’Eon, director of the Nova Scotia Lifeguard Service, said that two years of training was essentially lost for young swimmers as a result of COVID-19 restrictions that closed beaches and municipal pools.
“We’ve been proactive trying to train people, but we are still scrambling,” he said in an interview with The Canadian Press on May 26. He noted some beaches may have to close if enough trained lifeguards can’t be found.
He added that when a beach is closed due to a lack of supervision, swimming is still allowed but at people’s own risk.
“If we need to close some sites, we will probably pick the least dangerous and places where we have made the least rescues,” he said.
Christopher Love of the Lifesaving Society of Manitoba told Global News earlier in May that the traditional recruitment demographic for the industry — young people between 16 and 23 years old — is finding itself pulled in many directions these days, and youth may not be willing to go through the amount of training needed to become a qualified lifeguard.
“It’s not something you can just walk into,” he said. “It’s not necessarily as attractive to people if they have to get training upfront before walking out on the pool deck.”
The effect of fewer lifeguards, he said, means some facilities — both at local waterfronts or swimming pools — will have to cut back on services, which could result in more danger for swimmers, whose numbers haven’t dwindled.
But to at least begin tackling this issue, Byers said “municipalities have to widen the net” and look for competitive swimmers because they’ll have no problem doing the physical fitness part of the lifeguard training where they’ll learn water rescue skills.
“Many municipalities are also looking at people who are retired, and I think retired people have a lot of time … and fitness is a big priority,” Byers added.
She said amid the shortage, municipalities need to be more flexible.
“They need to give people part-time options and not just require them to be full-time, and to also be assertive and constantly be looking to hire versus hiring just for the summer or the fall,” Byers said.
– with files from The Canadian Press and Global New’ Sam Thompson