In January 2008, Pennsylvania officially eliminated lifeguards from almost all state park beaches. The move was to save a reported $800,000. That July, while on a group outing, a 17-year-old boy drowned at a state park. There’s no way to know for sure whether the tragedy could have been averted if lifeguards been on duty, but Jack Wagner, Pennsylvania auditor general still believes the decision to remove the guards was wrong.

“Even prior to the removal and the drowning, we were questioning that strategy and the reasoning behind it,” says Wagner, whose office wrote a special report examining the decision. “Unfortunately, it took a fatality to get [people’s] attention. …. We hope it doesn’t require another tragic situation for that to happen [again].”

Yet that scenario is set to play out in facilities across the nation. In the midst of the worst economic downturn since the Great Depression, state budgets have been decimated. All told, state coffer shortfalls for 2010 and 2011 are likely to reach some $375 billion, according to the Center on Budget and Policy Priorities.

Because virtually all states have to balance their budgets, that means a lot of cuts. And many of those have come at the expense of aquatics. Indeed, nearly 70 percent of aquatics professionals say budget cuts have directly impacted their facilities, according to anAquatics International survey in February 2010. The problem has gotten so bad for Newbury, Mass., the city has been reduced to asking for donations to maintain its lifeguard staff.

Understandably, no operator interviewed for this story admitted those cuts amounted to outright breaches in safety at their facilities. But when allowed to respond anonymously in the survey, 22 percent of aquatics professionals say they’re concerned that safety at their facilities could be compromised as a result of budget cuts.

In other words, our survey reveals what experts have been saying, and common sense implies: As public agencies struggle to balance budgets and private operations continue to reduce expenses, aquatic safety may be on the chopping block.

How could this be happening in an industry so committed to safety?

Simply put, “when resources are reduced, risks will increase,” says Johnny Johnson, owner of Blue Buoy Swim School in Tustin, Calif., and immediate past president of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. “I think across the board, we’re seeing the risks increase. We need to recognize where the risks are and try to mitigate them.”

Dangerous games

It’s true, most state and local codes govern the number of lifeguards at a public aquatics facility, and standards of care such as the 10/20 rule, mitigate risk at some. But as happened in Pennsylvania, when push comes to shove, laws or standards won’t always stop blatant reductions in lifeguards.

The problem seems especially bad for open beaches, where guards often earn more than their facility counterparts.

Another segment that’s vulnerable is private facilities, especially the hotel, motel, apartment, condominium (HMAC) sector. These facilities often aren’t governed by the same codes as public facilities and are more likely to cut guard staff to save money.

But regardless of the type of facility, because staffing is generally one of the largest expenses in operating an aquatics facility, reducing the number of employees remains an obvious way to trim expenses. Approximately 75 percent of survey respondents cite staffing as their largest expense, and nearly 12 percent reduced their lifeguard staffs in 2009.

“I’m seeing more and more facilities saying, ‘If we don’t have to have lifeguards, we’re not going to have them,’” says Alison Osinski, Ph.D., principal of Aquatic Consulting Services in San Diego. “Many are doing nothing beyond what the law requires.”

Osinski and other experts say some operators forced to reduce expenses are looking for “gray areas” where having a lifeguard on duty is advisable, but perhaps not required for operation. In February she was at a resort facility conducting an investigation of a child drowning and though the facility had added lifeguard supervision after the incident, the number of guards was recently reduced significantly, as were the hours guards are on duty.

Heather Woodland, president-elect of the California Parks and Recreation Society, has seen it, too. She’s aware of operators choosing not to staff pools during swim team practice in an effort to comply with a mandate to trim expenses.

Reducing the number of lifeguards increases risk in a number of ways. A 2001 CDC Report titled Lifeguard Effectiveness: A Report of the Working Group noted, “There is no doubt that providing trained, professional lifeguards has had a positive effect on drowning prevention in the United States. Guards help to prevent drownings because they have the specific training required to recognize distress and can act as a deterrent for dangerous behavior.”

A smaller lifeguard staff also increases the burden on the working guards. Earlier this year in Newbury, Mass., rising expenses and reduced income led to significant budget shortfalls. That’s when town officials were forced to run a donation campaign to pay for lifeguards at Plum Island Beach. It’s not yet known if that plan was successful.

“To eliminate half the guards would mean doubling the workload on the remaining guards. That would be setting the remaining lifeguards and the entire Newbury lifeguard program up to fail,” says Michael Reilly, chief of the Newbury Police Department, which oversees the guards. “People coming to a beach that’s advertised as staffed with lifeguards have the expectation that there will be an adequate amount of lifeguards on the beach, and that those guards will be well-trained and well-equipped.”

That scenario may prove especially true where operators are forced to cut mid-level staff or pull double duty, placing managers back in a lifeguarding role.

“I hear pool managers all the time saying, ‘I’m on the lifeguard stand now. I haven’t done it for 10 years,’” Woodland adds. “Is that person’s certification up to date?”

Even in facilities that are staffed properly, the impact of budget cuts still may have a dramatic impact in the form of reduced opportunities for training. According to our survey, 56 percent of respondents have had to skip industry conferences and other educational events, and 21 percent have had to reduce the amount of training they offer.

“Almost every one of the drowning cases I’m involved in is the result of a lack of appropriate, site-specific training,” says Gerald Dworkin, founder of Lifesaving Resources in Harrisville, N.H. “I hope they would consider cutting back hours rather than training.”

Still, few states require in-service training and, as a result, Dworkin says he saw a significant reduction of the amount of in-service training he provided.

“We hope those agencies were doing their own in-service training, but we have no way of knowing,” he adds.

Smart solutions?

Certainly no one intends to knowingly operate a facility where patrons are at risk of drowning, so to avoid losing lifeguards or training, many have come up with other solutions.

Some facilities are holding back on “nonessential” repairs — anything that won’t prevent them from opening the pool.

“We’ve had a heater that’s been down for eight months and there’s no telling when we might get that fixed,” said Joe Goss, aquatic supervisor for the city of Palmdale, Calif., who saw his budget slashed by nearly $250,000.

A malfunctioning heater is certainly not likely to put patrons in danger. But consider forgoing minor repairs such as cracks in the pool deck, which could cause a serious trip- and-fall hazard. That’s a significant issue, according to Osinski, especially given the growing numbers of elderly patrons.

“They’re not doing preventive maintenance, and I think we’re going to have an increase in certain types of accidents,” she says, adding that seemingly small incidents such as a slip and fall are the largest reason for aquatics-related law suits.

When deferring maintenance is not an option and there’s not enough money for staffing, perhaps the last resort is closing the pool altogether. Approximately 7 percent of the survey respondents say they’ve had to close a pool. Nationwide, approximately 300 pools have shut down as a result of budget cuts, estimates Mick Nelson, facilities

development director at USA Swimming, Colorado Springs, Colo.

No one can have an accident or drown in an empty, locked pool, but experts worry that shuttered pools mean decreased opportunities for children to learn to swim — and increased risk of drowning in unsafe, unsupervised swimming areas, such as drainage ditches or catchment ponds.

“The biggest risk is closing pools entirely,” says Bruce Wigo president/CEO of the International Swimming Hall of Fame in Fort Lauderdale, Fla. “And without pools, there will be no swim lessons.”

The good news

As the economy slowly bumps along the road to recovery, the good news is, there are ways to mitigate the risks.

If there aren’t enough lifeguards, perhaps the simplest and most logical solution is to adjust hours of operation or close a section of the facility.

Though revenues were down for many of Kevin Trapani’s clients in 2009, no drownings happened at any of the facilities his agency insures. Trapani, president/CEO of The Redwoods Group, Morrisville, N.C., points to two things that he believes have enabled this safety record: To develop smart strategies, many operators have relied heavily on quantitative data to determine peak usage and staff accordingly. Some also have made strategic programming decisions such as combining two small classes into one larger one.

“If you’re running a drugstore and you have one less person behind the counter, that’s unfortunate. If you’re running a pool, one less person on the deck could mean somebody dies, and that has tended to focus the mind for operators that we’ve talked too,” Trapani says. “The customers we see have been remarkably inventive.”

Manuel Gonzalez, aquatic supervisor III for the city of Chula Vista, Calif., has made it his mission to minimize the impact of budget cuts. In the past three years he’s seen a roughly 40 percent budget reduction, and one of the things he’s tried to do is maintain the level of in-service training. Though his training budget has been cut, Gonzalez, who’s also president of the San Diego County Aquatic Council, has worked to offset that by increasing the amount of time spent with lifeguard candidates. By having a staff that comes in as highly trained as possible, he hopes to maintain the skill level of his team.

Others have found different solutions. The Connecticut Recreation and Parks

Association established a joint training day for lifeguards from around the state. Several experts presented and, through shared resources, operators were able to ensure that their guards were well-prepared.

In the end, perhaps industry veteran Roy Fielding, senior lecturer/coordinator, exercise science program, Department of Kinesiology, University of North Carolina at Charlotte, sums up the situation best. “[Budget cuts] always are going to have the potential to impact safety. As operators, we need to stand firmly to see that it does not.”