At a recent Recreation Commission meeting here in Brunswick, the first agenda item under new business was “Coffin Pond Pool Closing.” As I and my fellow commissioners listened, we were told that for the first time in the last 3 decades the town’s only public swimming area would not be opening. While in the past there have been delayed openings and temporary closings due to water conditions, this year the pool would not open, period. The cause of the pool’s closure was the Parks and Recreation Department’s failure to fill even a skeleton crew of lifeguards.
We learned that the situation here in Brunswick was not unique and most other communities around the state and even around the country were struggling to find lifeguards. The shortage of trained staff has been nationwide for several years, and many beaches and pools particularly in the Northeast and Middle Atlantic states were being forced to close or shorten hours of operation (by Leoneda Inge, July 28, 2015, NPR’s All Thing Considered).
You might think that here on the coast we would have ample places for children to swim, but in Brunswick our shore is rocky and often inaccessible. At the few sandy beaches, the water temperature is too cold for all but the hardy souls until late August.Lower-income families will be particularly affected by the loss of the pool.
When I was growing up, lifeguarding was a plum job that was highly coveted. While it did not pay as well as working construction, the perks of a pleasant atmosphere, the chance to swim every day, and the opportunity to work outside with children prompted me at age 16 to sell my lawn mower and bequeath my lucrative landscaping customers to a couple of preteens. Looking back, my 4 years of lifeguarding were probably a major influence when it came time to choose a specialty.
However, a perfect storm of socioeconomic factors has combined to create a climate in which being a lifeguard has lost its appeal as a summertime job. First, there is record low unemployment nationwide. Young people looking for work have their pick, and while wages still remain low, they can be choosy when it comes to hours and benefits. Lifeguarding does require a skill set and several hoops of certification to be navigated. I don’t recall having to pay much of anything to become certified. But I understand that the process now costs hundreds of dollars of upfront investment with no guarantee of passing the test.
In May, the American Academy of Pediatrics published a policy paper titled “Prevention of Drowning” () in which the authors offer the troubling statistics on the toll that water-related accidents take on the children of this country annually. They go on to provide a broad list of actions that parents, communities, and pediatricians can take to prevent drownings. Under the category of Community Interventions and Advocacy Opportunities, recommendation No. 4 is “Pediatricians should work with community partners to provide access to programs that develop water-competency swim skills for all children.”
Obviously, these programs can’t happen without an adequate supply of lifeguards.
Unfortunately, the AAP’s statement fails to acknowledge or directly address the lifeguard shortage that has been going on for several years. While an adequate supply of lifeguards is probably not as important as increasing parental attentiveness and mandating pool fences in the overall scheme of drowning prevention, it is an issue that demands action both by the academy and those of us practicing in communities both large and small.
For my part, I am going to work here in Brunswick to see that we can offer lifeguards pay that is more than competitive and then develop an in-house training program to ensure a continuing supply for the future. If we are committed to encouraging our patients to be active, swimming is one of the best activities we should promote and support.
Dr. Wilkoff practiced primary care pediatrics in Brunswick, Maine for nearly 40 years. He has authored several books on behavioral pediatrics, including “How to Say No to Your Toddler.” Email him at.