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
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
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.”
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
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
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
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
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.
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
“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
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
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
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
“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
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
“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
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
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.”