Watch CBS News

Water Safety Week: Exploring possible solutions to NYC's lifeguard shortage

Water Safety Week: Training next generation of lifeguards
Water Safety Week: Training next generation of lifeguards 03:25

NEW YORK - Every day this week CBS2 has covered stories about water safety. 

Our series continues with a look at the national lifeguard shortage and the impact on city beaches and pools. 

New York City only has about a third of the approximately 1,400 lifeguards needed to keep swimmers safe this summer, according to officials at NYC Department of Parks and Recreation. 

At a City Council hearing on May 22, Commissioner Sue Donoughue said, "We have seen a significant challenge that is not unique to New York."

Henry Garrido, executive director of District Council 37, the union which represents lifeguards, says this could lead to decreased access to safe swimming citywide.

"People are going to take a risk, and they're going to swim in areas that may be closed, where you have that sign that says, 'No lifeguard on duty,'" Garrido tells CBS2's Hannah Kliger. 

Leaders at YMCA of Greater New York say they're feeling the shortage, too. In response, YMCA started providing a free lifeguard course, which allows for expedited training and throws in some additional perks. 

"They get a stipend, and when they are finished, it's a national certification, so they can work anywhere in the country. If they choose to work for the YMCA, we have a sign-on bonus," explains Mary O'Donoghue, YMCA's senior director of aquatics. 

"Fewer lifeguards means fewer opportunities for pools and other places to be open, which in turn, means fewer people learning to swim, which in turn, makes fewer lifeguards," adds Romulus Staton, YMCA's director of lifeguard training & certification.

Meanwhile, a Brooklyn teacher is trying to break the cycle. Marvin Carbajal teaches physical education and swimming coach at the Bushwick Campus, a massive building that houses for New York City public high schools. 

"I had a near-death experience, drowning at the beach," says Carbajal. "So I had a fear of the water."

Carbajal is an alumnus himself, who learned to swim in the school's pool. He joined the swim team in the early 1990s and spent 10 years as a lifeguard. Decades later as a teacher, he brought the sport back to the students. 

"Fear of the water is generational. So people instill fear in their children not to go near the water and never learn how to swim," he says. 

Twenty years ago, this school was considered a lifeguard factory, responsible for producing many of the lifeguards who work at city beaches and pools. With the return of these swim teams, Carbajal hopes to bring that legacy back, too.

Bryan Merchan didn't know how to swim last school year. Now, the 18-year-old is on the team and weeks away from finishing his lifeguard training through the Parks Department. 

"Its really cool. I'm proud of myself for accomplishing that," he said at a recent practice.

So is 15-year-old Karen Valencia, who is hoping to pass the test and begin working as soon as she turns 16. 

"That's a great opportunity and you don't know, that can open doors for you in the future. It's opening doors for me right now," Valencia, who is on the girls' swim team, explained.

As advocates are sounding the alarm over a troubling trend, city leaders are scouring for solutions before the summer's dog days set in and thousands flock to the nearest water. 

"Nationwide, since the pandemic ended, our drowning rates are on the increase," says Adam Katchmarchi, executive director of the National Drowning Prevention Alliance. "Right now, we're actually seeing drowning rates that we saw in the late 1990s, so it's really taken us back about 20 years in this country."

A spokesperson with Parks Department says last year it was able to open all the city's beaches and pools and it's hoping to do the same this year. 

"NYC Parks has been working since September 2022 to rebuild our lifeguard ranks, which were severely impacted by losses from the pandemic and reflected in the national lifeguard shortage last summer. Despite extensive recruitment efforts and incentives, including a raise to bring salaries for first- and second-year lifeguards to over $21 per hour, it is still difficult to bring in new lifeguards," the spokesperson said in a statement.

New York City's public swimming pools are set to reopen on June 29th. 

Have a story idea or tip in Brooklyn? Email Hannah by CLICKING HERE.

View CBS News In
CBS News App Open
Chrome Safari Continue
Be the first to know
Get browser notifications for breaking news, live events, and exclusive reporting.