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Lifeguard Shortage Plagues Summer Pools

Dublin lifeguard instructor Courtney Chapman is teaching a small certification course; three high school students and two adults. As Chapman begins the class, she says demand for lifeguards is so much higher right now because new pools and water facilities are being built all over the place. Chapman says Dublin needs to hire 40 new lifeguards for their expanded pool system for summer and Chapman says Zoombezi Bay is causing a problem.

"Its really hard cause Zoombezi Bay is so close to Dublin so we are really pulling from the same pool of workers and then I have Hilliard on the other side of me and they are opening their new facility and are needing just as many new guards as I am."

Zoombezi Bay wants to hire 175 lifeguards and has hired a private firm to train them. Typically the Red Cross trains guards in the Columbus area. It sponsors 95 % of classes and trains more that 2000 lifeguards a year. But pools and state parks say that number is not enough. Red Cross aquatics director Scott Gruding says now municipal pools and state parks will have to compete with the new water park to attract new guards.

"In my experience and from talking with local aquatics directors, its not that they don't have enough interest in coming in to be a lifeguard, it's that young people have other things they have to do during the summer. They have sporting events they have to practice and vacations they have to do. Even though they are certified as a lifeguard for a facility there is a large window of time where they have to leave to go do other obligations. So pools have to staff their facilities with extra people to make sure they have the minimum coverage at all time."

Sandy Chiaramonte at Alum Creek State Park says it has been forced to phase out its lifeguard program over the past few years because it was too hard to find certified guards. This year the Alum Creek Beach will remain open but swimmers will enter the water at their own risk. This is not an option for Zoombezi Bay.

The water park will open Memorial Day weekend. It will have 15 water slides, a wave pool, two rivers and a kid's pool. Human resources coordinator Steph Mizer says the zoo is taking applications and certification classes are underway but Mizer says she is still about 100 guards short. She says reaching the target number by opening day might not be feasible but she remains optimistic.

"Certainly memorial day is not as busy as something like Fourth of July weekend. We would love to have them all by then but we know that is probably no realistic because there might be colleges that recruit from that don't get out until June. And that is when we will be truly full strength. Plus you have to anticipate turnover too so we will have to have applications on hand if people quit or don't show up to work or something."

Mizer says on any given busy day the zoo will have to staff between 50 and 60 guards. The zoo is trying to recruit from high schools and area sports teams but is hoping the $8.50 an hour pay and the uniqueness of the park will be a selling point.

"Honestly we think we are providing a pretty good fun environment. It s a brand spanking new park and we know its going to be fun and kind of the talk of the town for the summer and we think that will help attract people."

The scramble to higher lifeguards reaches beyond the northwest suburbs. The city of Columbus which operates seven pools has started offering incentives to their lifeguards. The aquatics director John Gloyd says last year was the first time the city offered incentives but it still failed to fill all 140 guard positions.

"If we fall short, which we don't anticipate doing. What we do is close the pools on a rotational basis. So if I'm short a staff I may close one pool one day and another pool the next and rotate the staff to fill in those locations."

The high demand and short supply for lifeguards can work in favor of the certified lifeguards. The Red Cross's Scott Gruding says pay wages can be used as a bargaining tool.

"There's a job for you out there if you are interested in becoming a Red Cross lifeguard. Get out there and ask those questions of what are the pay raises, what are the benefits of working for your aquatic facility. And most pools know that and they are very competitive and they want to make sure they get your business."