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In Search of Lifeguards

Every summer, people ask if there will be swimming at Sunset Lake. As much as I want to answer with an enthusiastic yes, I’ve not been able to. The challenge to opening Sunset Lake for swimming has been the lack of lifeguards. The notion of taking a swim on a hot summer day is not as simple as it sounds.

If you’re old enough, you likely have memories of going down to a lake or some favorite watering hole and not worrying about lifeguards. There may have been a lifeguard on duty at shore beaches, but just as often there was none, especially at the smaller watering holes. Things are different today and opening a beach and inviting the public to swim is not a simple thing.

For starters, there are standards to be met. The business of lifeguarding has evolved over the last century to include first aid, CPR (cardiopulmonary resuscitation), and more recently the use of external defibrillators. In the case of a lakefront, you need so many lifeguards for so many feet of beach and number of swimmers. In the case of Sunset Lake the minimum number is three lifeguards, but the preference is to have four.

This is a matter of public safety. Estimates by the USLA (U.S. Lifesaving Association) indicate that lifeguards in this country save roughly 100,000 people from drowning each year. A Center for Disease Control (CDC) report on lifeguard effectiveness points out that approximately 4,000 people a year die from drowning; based on studies for specific years a fair number of them are children under the age of 15.

Beyond the public safety aspect, we are a litigious society and lawsuits are common. Obviously this concern takes a distant second to public safety, but protecting taxpayers from costly litigation means that cutting corners on ensuring the minimum number of lifeguards is not an option—it’s all or nothing.

Each year, months before the summer, we begin our efforts to hire lifeguards. We also attempt to set up training sessions to help those interested in getting the necessary certifications. Our lifeguards need certifications specific to lakefronts.

For any who may be interested, we pay between $12 and $14 per hour to lifeguards depending on experience. In recent years, the Cumberland Cape Atlantic YMCA offered classes starting in February. The pandemic interfered with everything over the last two seasons, but going forward, anyone interested should contact them.

Our short-term hope is to be able to have enough lifeguards on duty to open Sunset Lake and know that sufficient help is at the ready should someone get into trouble in the water. Right now the challenge is finding enough people with the necessary certifications who are willing to work through the season, but we’ll keep at it.

Beyond hiring enough lifeguards to open, a long-term goal is to cultivate some homegrown talent. As a minority-majority community acknowledging the many divisions over ethnicity—and factoring in how those divisions have played out when it came to integrated public swimming—this too may contribute to our difficulties in staffing the lake to required levels. A local effort to address the issue will no doubt involve local high school and college-age youth and may well start with something as basic as learning how to swim. Go figure.