Patti Machado is worried. Usually by this time of year, Machado, Barnstable’s recreation director, has a full cadre of 105 lifeguards ready to patrol Cape Cod's beaches and ponds. But not this year. The town is facing a lifeguard shortage as the busy summer season gets underway.
“So, at the moment, we are 22 lifeguards short,” she said.
Other municipalities across the Commonwealth are facing the same situation with fewer lifeguards to watch over swimmers at public swim areas.
The Massachusetts Department of Conservation and Recreation aims to hire approximately 600 lifeguards for agency-managed waterfront locations across the Commonwealth, including ocean and inland beaches, swimming pools, and wading pools. The DCR hasn’t filled all the spots yet.
Machado attributes the shortage to the pandemic and COVID- 19 restrictions that limited training classes.
“We've not been able to run lifeguard training classes for a year, so you can't get lifeguards, if you can't get them trained,” she said.
Tim McGrath, Barnstable’s Aquatics Program Coordinator, said with the town missing one quarter of its lifeguard staff, they’ve had to cut lifeguard services at some swim locations.
"We were planning on closing two of our smaller sites to our ponds to have enough lifeguards at our bigger sites,” McGrath said.
State, city, and town officials have been advertising to hire more lifeguards. But until that happens, officials encourage swimmers to pay attention to swim safety rules and swim cautiously at unguarded waterfronts.
Boston’s YMCA Chief Executive Officer James Morton said his organization struggled to hire lifeguards for their 13 branches and 120,000 members. But they have done outreach to remedy the shortage.
“We've been conducting job fairs to attract as many young people as possible who might be interested in being lifeguards. Lifeguards get paid really well,” he said.
A recent spate of drownings in Massachusetts has only heightened the urgency.
This spring two teens drowned in Brockton and a Worcester Police officer drowned attempting to rescue a boy at a local pond. The child also drowned.
Rebecca Thomas, director of Injury Prevention and Control at the Massachusetts Department of Public Health, said the state already seeing an increase in reported drownings, though there is not yet data available for this year.
“I'm pretty worried about this year,” said Thomas, noting there has been an increase in the number of 9-1-1 calls related to drowning. “The numbers do appear higher this year than they did last year. And last year, which was during the pandemic, was higher than the two years prior to that.”
For the 2021season, DCR continues to seek lifeguards in the Boston Region (including Cambridge and the surrounding towns), the North Region (specifically Saugus, Nahant, and East Boston), the South Region (specifically Sandwich and Westport), and the Central Region (Metro West to Worcester County).
“Every year, Massachusetts residents and visitors travel to DCR beaches, lakes, ponds, and pools seeking relief from the summer heat and time with friends and family outdoors,” said DCR Commissioner Jim Montgomery. “DCR lifeguards are absolutely critical to ensuring the public can safely enjoy our popular swimming locations and make a real difference by dedicating their summer days to safeguarding the public."
All DCR lifeguard applicants must be at least 16-years old and certified in lifeguard training, CPR, and First Aid. All applicants must be able to swim 500 yards in under 11 minutes. Ocean beach lifeguards are required to swim 500 yards in under 9 minutes and 30 seconds.
James Farrell of the United State Lifesaving Association is in charge of the New England region and oversees open water lifeguarding. He said this area is one of the toughest in the country to staff lifeguards.
“We've got a 10-week season,” he said. “We do not have a lot of training time. And we have the youngest staff in the entire country, in other areas like Miami, California, etc., lifeguarding is a profession, not a summer job.”
At Craigville Beach on a beautiful June day last week, parent Catherine Lafferty of Hopkinton said with the lifeguard shortage there is a greater need for more adult supervision.
“We kind of need to address distracted parenting or guardianship on the beaches," she said. "I think that if you have a group of people watching the kids, one person always has that bracelet.”
Charlie Packard of Dedham agreed. He has two young children and says lifeguards are invaluable, but they can’t take the place of watchful parents.
“I think what's most important . . . more than anything else, is having adult supervision and making sure the kids are safe.”