PENNSYLVANIA (WHTM) — On a hot, sunny Thursday in July, the Lancaster County Swimming Pool sat empty, even though the weather was perfect for swimming. That same day in Harrisburg, the Devon Manor Swim Club was bustling with swimmers and sunbathers.
Pools around the state faced lifeguard shortages following the COVID-19 pandemic, but some have been able to get back to normal, while others are only able to open a few days a week.
Typically open seven days a week, the Lancaster County Swimming Pool is only open Friday through Sunday this summer. Signs at the entrance to the pool attribute this change to a “critical shortage of lifeguards.”
“We’ve had to modify our schedule, and even within that schedule we’ve had to modify operations,” Paul Weiss, Lancaster County Department of Parks and Recreation administrator, said.
Sometimes even when the pool is open, its waterslide is closed to ensure that the available lifeguards are able to keep all swimmers safe.
Weiss said the lifeguard shortage the Lancaster pool is experiencing is not an entirely new issue. Instead, he said, “There’s been a downward trend over the last five years in the industry,” although the pandemic exacerbated the challenge of recruiting lifeguards.
Weiss isn’t sure what is causing the trend, but since lifeguards are typically younger — usually in the range of 15-20 years old — he hypothesizes that they may just be busy with other extracurricular activities or internships.
“Maybe the job just doesn’t have the cache that it once did,” Weiss said, joking that if Baywatch came back on TV the job would become popular again.
At the Devon Manor Swim Club pool in Harrisburg, manager Sam Gherardini was a little worried about what his pool’s 2021 season might look like.
“I wasn’t sure how the season was going to look. I thought we were going to have to wear masks and stuff,” said Gherardini. As for lifeguards, Gherardini said, “At the beginning of the season we were a little iffy.”
However, the pool was able to hire four new lifeguards, and, Gherardini said, “Nothing’s really changed.” The Devon Manor pool is open seven days a week, and operations there are pretty much back to normal.
The Devon Manor pool was closed last year due to the pandemic, and now guests are glad to be back in the water. “I feel like they got robbed of their summer last year, so I feel like people are trying to make the most out of it this year,” Gherardini said.
As of July 15, the Devon Manor Swim Club had a number of members equal to 90% of its 2019 membership, and the pool’s president, Thaddeus D’Ambrosia, expects that number to surpass 100% by the end of the month.
D’Ambrosia also noted that more than 40% of the pool’s members this year are “first-timers” to Devon Manor Swim Club. The recent hot weather and the reopening of the pool have attracted more than 5,000 visitors to the Devon Manor pool since its season started on June 4.
So why are the Devon Manor pool and the Lancaster County Swimming Pool having such different summers?
Both pools are well-established in their communities, having been around since the 1960s. One major difference between the pools, though, is their size.
According to Weiss, the minimum number of lifeguards needed to safely open the Lancaster County pool is four, although with only four guards, a portion of the pool must be closed off. Ideally, the pool would have eight lifeguards per day to open fully.
On the other hand, the Devon Manor Swim Club needs a minimum of two lifeguards at the pool to operate safely, while it would ideally have four lifeguards available per day, according to D’Ambrosia.
The pool typically has between five and six guards available per day, D’Ambrosia said. Gherardini explained that in addition to hiring designated lifeguards, all of the other staff members at the Devon Manor pool are also trained to act as lifeguards if needed.
The Lancaster County Swimming Pool has six lifeguard chairs to fill — seven including the chair on top of the water slides. In contrast, the Devon Manor pool has three chairs.
Based on this information, the Lancaster County pool requires twice as many lifeguards as the Devon Manor pool to operate safely. This might be part of the reason for the pools’ different 2021 seasons.
The issue isn’t necessarily as straightforward as size, though. Adding more complexity, the understaffed Lancaster County pool offers hiring incentives for its lifeguards that include reimbursement for lifeguard certification costs, which the Devon Manor pool does not offer.
The Devon Manor pool has found success hiring lifeguards from the swim team it hosts, but teams also practice at the Lancaster County Swimming pool.
The Devon Manor Swim Club hosts the Devon Crest Swim Team, which provides many of its lifeguards. “They’ve been here for years swimming on the swim team, and once they get to that age, it’s usually like, ‘Oh I want to work at the pool,'” Gherardini said.
In an email, Weiss explained that swim teams also practice at the Lancaster County Swimming Pool. “We try every year to recruit lifeguards from these teams as well,” Weiss wrote.
Even though the Lancaster County Swimming Pool isn’t having quite the summer Weiss might wish for, it’s still providing a place for community members to beat the heat and enjoy some time in the water. “We’re doing what we’re doing, and it’s going well,” Weiss said.