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Phillips Park Family Aquatic Center in Aurora won't open this summer due to lifeguard shortage; other districts experience similar problems

Park districts dealing with lifeguard shortages weeks before pools are set to open 02:52

AURORA, Ill. (CBS) -- A lifeguard shortage is creating a real challenge in Aurora, where the Phillips Park Family Aquatic Center will not be able to open this year.

As CBS 2's Jackie Kostek reported Thursday, Aurora's Fox Valley Park District is far from alone in experiencing such a shortage.

Kostek spoke to park district aquatics managers across the city and suburbs Thursday, and just about every single one said they are far off the mark of their normal lifeguard recruiting. Many say this is an issue that started before the pandemic, but has only getting worse.

The issue has led the Fox Valley Park District to make a call they didn't want to have to make – and that is to close one of their outdoor facilities, the Philips Park Aquatic Center, for the upcoming summer season. Anyone who bought a season pass to Phillips Park will automatically be transferred to the district's other outdoor water park, Splash Country.

The reason the aquatic center won't open, the park district says, is that they just can't safely operate without proper staffing.

Sandie Gilmer is the recreation superintendent for the Fox Valley Park District. She says to operate all three Fox Valley water parks, two of which are outside, they would need 160 lifeguards. Currently, Gilmer says they're at 63.

It's not for lack of trying to recruit. Gilmer says park district staff began recruiting for the summer season in December, they raised the minimum wage for lifeguards to $15 an hour. In March, they held a job fair and started trying to recruit during high school lunch hours and at colleges.

"We really wanted to say four weeks ago that we are staffed and we're good to run, and it's just been every week, analyzing numbers and trends of where applications are coming in," Gilmer said. "It really was the hardest decision to make, and we just finally had to make it this week because of the amount of time it takes to train and get staff ready to open the parks."

The American Lifeguard Association says one in three pools across the U.S. are at risk of being shut down due to staff shortages.    

Elsewhere, park districts are actively recruiting, and many say they are well below their targets.

In Woodridge, fully-staffed means 30-35 lifeguards. Right now, they have 12.

In Buffalo Grove, they're aiming for 75 to 90 staff total. They have around 45.

Some suburbs are reducing hours for their aquatic facilities, while others closing a couple of days a week. In Naperville, they will condense the swimming area of Centennial Beach before they'll reduce hours.

So why are so many park districts struggling to hire lifeguards? Gilmer points to a couple possible reasons. One, lifeguarding is no longer a glorified job to have as a teenager or young adult. And, she says it is a difficult job that requires a lot of training and bears a lot of responsibility. 

For one, she believes lifeguarding is no longer a glorified job to have as a teenager or young adult. She says it is a difficult job that requires a lot of training and bears a lot of responsibility. 

"When they're in that chair, they're not just there tanning. They're having to scan the water," Gilmer said, "and it's stressful when the pool is full and you're responsible for making sure everyone who walks into that facility walks out."

As for the Chicago Park District, they say they are still actively recruiting lifeguards for pools and beaches this summer and are optimistic that they will be able to secure enough to operate.

And it didn't necessarily feel like it this chilly Thursday, summer is right around the corner - with many of these pools and beaches set to open Memorial Day weekend.

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