Southfield siblings Cheyenne Rucker and China Rucker, and Ryan Covington and Chayse Covington, enjoy opening day at the Southfield Sports Arena pool last summer.

Southfield siblings Cheyenne Rucker and China Rucker, and Ryan Covington and Chayse Covington, enjoy opening day at the Southfield Sports Arena pool last summer.

File photo by Donna Agusti


Amid lifeguard shortage, a need for swim lessons surfaces

By: Tiffany Esshaki | C&G Newspapers | Published July 2, 2019

 Red Oaks Waterpark staffer Mike Cavanaugh trains lifeguards on how to make a rescue at the Madison Heights wave pool back in 2013.

Red Oaks Waterpark staffer Mike Cavanaugh trains lifeguards on how to make a rescue at the Madison Heights wave pool back in 2013.

File photo by Deb Jacques

 Oakland County Parks and Recreation recently finished a training session for summer lifeguards after scrambling to find enough people to fill the positions.

Oakland County Parks and Recreation recently finished a training session for summer lifeguards after scrambling to find enough people to fill the positions.

Photo provided by Desiree Stanfield, Oakland County Parks and Recreation

METRO DETROIT — When Oakland County Parks and Recreation Manager of Operations Sue Wells was a teenager, a dark tan and sun-lightened hair were the true indicators of a successful summer break.

But these days, the coveted seasonal gig of lifeguarding just isn’t as popular as it used to be. Across the country, there’s been a shortage of lifeguards at swim spots, and that has pool patrons wondering how safe it is to dive in.

“I think it’s a couple of things. You know, these are (mostly) 16-year-olds, and their job responsibility is to save people’s lives. It’s not like working in retail or food service. But the trade-off is it’s a nice job because you can be outside and among your friends,” Wells said.

Add to that pressure the time constraints of teen schedules — packed to the brim with extracurricular activities, sports, internships and more — and there simply isn’t enough time for many young people to earn some cash poolside.

“The whole school calendar has changed. We typically open the water parks on Memorial Day weekend, but even that’s changed, because school isn’t even done until almost late June. And they start back up the week before Labor Day,” Wells said. “Sports have become a year-round endeavor, so a lot of them are doing some kind of summer conditioning with their team. And there’s more and more emphasis on workplace experience for college students.”

Not willing to compromise on safety, the parks system compromised on its hours of operation instead, shortening them to about four hours during the beginning of June. Waterford Oaks waterpark is still working on reduced hours.

But a little nudge and a lot of publicity to spread the word about the shortage got the Oakland County Parks and Recreation Department enough applicants to finally fill the lifeguard chairs. Wells said she’s hopeful that after a bit more on-site training, the crew will be ready to get to work and all the parks can go back to regular hours in a couple of weeks.

Is it really necessary, though, to staff a lifeguard at all? In the Great Lakes State, where water fun is a lifestyle, shouldn’t most of us know about swim safety?

Actually, yes.

That’s according to Perry Rech, the regional communications and marketing director for the American Red Cross of Southeast Michigan.

“Our swim lessons remain incredibly popular around the country, particularly in Michigan,” Rech said in an email. “We have classes going on across the state throughout the year. From Red Cross-led classes to those directed through our program partners, water competency remains key to the Red Cross mission overall.”

The organization estimates that fewer than half of all Americans have basic swimming skills or even what they call water competency: knowing how to surface from deep water, treading water, and swimming to an exit and getting out of a pool without a ladder or assistance.

“The notion can be broken down into three key areas: water smarts, swimming skills and helping others,” Rech said.

The Centers for Disease Control and Prevention reports that from 2005 to 2014, the average number of accidental drownings in the United States was 10 people every day, and one in five of those victims is younger than 14. So lifeguards and swim lessons are very much still a need in communities, Wells said.

“By state law, you have to have lifeguards at a swimming pool,” Wells explained, noting that lakes can go unattended. “At Red Oaks (Waterpark in Madison Heights) last year, we had an average of about 300 saves. Other smaller pools might have one or two saves, but we really need to have someone out there.”

The Macomb County Sheriff’s Office Marine Division oversees Lake St. Clair, which doesn’t need a lifeguard on duty for the public to take a dip.

But that doesn’t mean safety falls by the wayside. The division embarks on dozens of search and rescue efforts annually, and it spends even more time on educational programming onshore.

Its volunteer-taught boater safety classes are in such high demand that the department had to add additional sessions to accommodate the waiting list of folks wanting to learn to safely operate a vessel and navigate around other boats.

Rech said Red Cross-partner swimming classes can be found by visiting the training services portion its website at redcross.org.

Oakland County parks used to offer community swimming classes too, but that eventually fell by the wayside, according to Wells. But this year’s lifeguard shortage was a kind of wake-up call that swim safety lessons are needed.

“We didn’t want to compete with smaller municipalities that offered swim classes, but more and more pools are closing,” she said. “So that’s one thing we’re looking at this winter is evaluating what kind of program we can (launch) to get individuals not just swim lessons, but interested in lifeguarding.”

To get updates on the hours of operation and special events at Oakland County water parks and other sites, visit oaklandcountyparks.com.