By Ben Olson
An integral part of the summer season in Sandpoint involves recreating in Lake Pend Oreille, which requires a number of lifeguards to ensure everyone exits the water safely at popular swimming holes like Sandpoint City Beach. However, a shortage of qualified workers has both Litehouse YMCA and the city of Sandpoint scrambling to fill lifeguard stands. With drownings reported in the lake just about every year, swimmers’ safety remains a top priority.
“We’re short guards for the season,” said Sandpoint Parks and Recreation Supervisor Jason Wiley. “I need between 11 and 16 lifeguards to run the beach at full capacity.”
Several factors have contributed to the declining numbers of lifeguards, though the primary reason for the shortage relates to the lengthy COVID-19 pandemic.
“The national shortage of lifeguards has been going on for a while,” Wiley told the Reader. “People are looking at ways to fix this. We’ve raised our wages to try to keep up with things.”
The city of Sandpoint “shares” lifeguards with Litehouse YMCA and vice versa, meaning the two entities help each other keep fully staffed by interchanging guards as needs arise.
Litehouse YMCA Executive Director Heidi Bohall underscored to the Reader the impact of the pandemic — particularly regarding getting new guards into the employment pipeline.
“There was a two-year gap where no lifeguards were trained,” Bohall said. “If you think of that on a broader scale, we’re now living with the consequences of that training gap.”
Prospective lifeguards must complete a 20-hour class through the Red Cross to become certified, but those classes weren’t offered during the height of the pandemic.
“Kids who already had the training went off to college, so now we don’t have that pool that we usually pull from,” Bohall said.
Bohall said a shortage of guards has the potential to negatively affect the community.
“It means we will have nobody to teach swimming lessons, nobody to guard our bodies of water, whether at the pool or lake,” Bohall said.
While keeping swimmers safe is the obvious first priority of lifeguards, a second impact involves swim instruction.
“The pool [at YMCA] cannot stay open if we don’t have lifeguards,” said Bohall. “As far as swim instructors, we can’t offer swim lessons for families when we have a shortage of lifeguards. … If you think about that on an exponential level, you build the snowball and we might have an entire community where swimming is lacking. That creates weak swimmers. When we live around water, that’s not good.”
Bohall said working as a lifeguard is a rewarding experience that lasts a lifetime.
“I was a lifeguard,” she said. “I probably had two to three saves a summer, usually little kids under 5 years old. People don’t realize how important it is to have lifeguards until you go through an experience like that. You’re not just sitting on a stand tanning. You’re literally saving lives.”
Wiley noted that the minimum age for open water certification for lifeguards is 16 years old. He said pay for lifeguards is competitive and the job is also a fun and interesting way to spend your summer. Applications are available on the city website at sandpointidaho.gov. For further questions, applicants are encouraged to call 208-263-3613.
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