LOS ANGELES — Len Hughes, a California lifeguard recruiter, decided this season would be different. For months, he and San Clemente Beach officials saturated local radio waves, newspaper ads, and supermarket fliers with an urgent plea: "Lifeguards Wanted."
But only 42 applicants ended up turning out - a historic low. Of those, fewer than half passed the first interview. Worst of all, five had to be rescued in their first swim trial.
"I've never seen anything like it," Mr. Hughes says. "The worse news is that everyone I've talked to nationwide is having the same problem."
From Maine to Florida, San Diego to Washington State, lifeguard chairs at pools, lakes, and ocean beaches are missing the Fabio-physiqued water hunks of yesteryear more than any time in decades. With a water-tight job market, the high-school-to-30 age group that usually fills the bill is making more money at other things. And as the dog days of August approach, even the few lifeguards that remain are beginning to dwindle as some steal away for vacations or return to college early.
"There are so many more activities competing for the attention of young people, that spending a summer working for a low wage as a lifeguard has dropped way down the list," says Chris Brewster, lifeguard chief for the San Diego Lifeguard Service. "They can make so much more money elsewhere without the hundreds of hours of formal training it takes to be a lifeguard that they are skipping the option, to the detriment of the rest of us."
Besides the soaring economy and tight job market, observers say, several longer-term factors contribute to the shortage.
Smaller applicant pool
After years of cutbacks and shifts in leisure-and-sport pursuits at the community level, the once-large pool of trained teenagers rising through the ranks of local swim clubs has evaporated. And because of a soaring economy, the superathletes who used lifeguarding to keep in shape in the off season now have more money and backing to keep them in training for the events they excel at, like football or gymnastics.
At the same time, standards for certification have been lowered, as private companies have rushed to fill the need for lifeguards, but with qualifying requirements that have driven down the national norm.
At swimming venues around the country, the resulting shortage is characterized as anywhere from a minor inconvenience to a crisis. Recreation officials are having to increase pay, hire less-than-desirable talent, close sections of beach, or just do without.
In Connecticut, miles of public beach along Long Island Sound are not currently protected by lifeguards. Huntington Beach, Calif., made famous in songs such as "Surf City," is 10 short.
"I'd call it a national crisis," says Rich Connell, beach supervisor at Del Ray Beach, Fla. Last year, eight applicants applied for more than a dozen openings there. None could pass. This year, three showed up and again, none passed.
Mr. Connell and others say lawsuits against water parks and theme parks with water attractions have accelerated as these parks have multiplied in recent years. To fend off such suits, private companies started offering new lifesaving and training methods and would then insure such facilities based on strict adherence to their own standards.
A widespread effect of this, they say, is the commensurate lowering of standards by the American Red Cross - which for decades had stood as the premier certifying body for US lifeguards - as a way to remain competitive with such private companies.
"The Red Cross began to dilute their standards to the point that if you look at what most lifeguards had to learn 30 years ago compared to today, it's a joke," says Connell. "Our litigious society has so encouraged a different approach to training and a division of environments - open water, pools, and theme parks - that the profession is in disarray."
Some observers say the situation could be solved with a simple strategy: more pay.
Tom Rennick, head of lifeguards at Daytona Beach says the starting pay of $7 per hour is easily exceeded by most teens at local hamburger joints and grocery checkouts. And Carl Martinez, water-safety coordinator for Gateway National Recreation Area in New York, says the reason National Parks are having trouble keeping their 250 lifeguard positions filled is entry-level pay of only $10 per hour.
"If you look at the counties that do not have a problem with this compared to those that do, you will find those that don't are paying about twice as much," Mr. Martinez says.
Get what you pay for
One example, he notes, is Los Angeles County, where ocean lifeguards start at $15.75 - about $630 per week compared with $412 on average elsewhere. Los Angeles does not currently have the shortage of neighboring Orange County to the south. "It's a simple question of how much value these different communities put on human life," says Martinez.
That's bad news for Capt. Len Hughes in San Clemente, Calif., where there have been 417 ocean rescues this month alone. "My guards are starting to make their exits at the same time I am trying to do recruitment and training," he says.
He adds that New York City has tried to fill its breach by hiring actors from TV's "Baywatch" to extol the work of lifeguards in public-service announcements. But similar appeals here have only led to applications by wannabees who try but can't swim.
"I compare this to putting on a play while you are still doing the casting, and rehearsing while the curtain goes up," Hughes says.
(c) Copyright 1999. The Christian Science Publishing Society