HALIFAX — A potential shortage of lifeguards on Nova Scotia’s beaches this summer is being attributed in part to training gaps caused by the pandemic.
Paul D’Eon, director of the Nova Scotia Lifeguard Service, said Thursday that two years of training was essentially lost for young swimmers as a result of COVID-19 restrictions that closed beaches and municipal pools.
“We’ve been proactive trying to train people, but we are still scrambling,” he said in an interview. He said some beaches may have to close if enough trained lifeguards can't be found.
It's not just on Nova Scotia beaches that lifeguard chairs risk being left empty, D'Eon added. “It is not a unique problem," he said. "It’s all across North America."
Barbara Byers, a national senior research officer with the Lifesaving Society Canada’s Ontario office, said the challenges in finding lifeguards is not a new phenomenon.
“There had been a shortage prior to COVID-19, but the situation has sort of been amplified since things have been opening up again,” said Byers, whose organization develops lifeguarding standards and training courses for municipalities.
She said while lifeguarding is not unique in its staffing problems as the country emerges from COVID-19 restrictions, the situation is unlike that faced by restaurants and other businesses, because lifeguard training has to be updated every two years.
She said some swimming programs will likely be affected by a lack of supervision. ”I think municipalities are doing everything they can to make this (training) happen as soon as possible, but it is a challenge,” said Byers.
With Nova Scotia’s beaches set to open July 1, the service currently has six unfilled positions, D’Eon said. The service supervises 25 beaches and hires between 80 and 90 lifeguards and instructors across the province.
He added that when a beach is closed due to a lack of supervision, swimming is still allowed but at people’s own risk. “If we need to close some sites, we will probably pick the least dangerous and places where we have made the least rescues,” he said.
The service is reaching out to swim teams to try to fill the remaining lifeguard positions. “I’m saying you come work for me, we will pay for and do all the training and certify you,” D'Eon said.
His organization is also open to looking at what lifeguards are paid in order to entice more people into the ranks. He said the funding for salaries comes through various municipal, provincial and federal contracts.
“I might go back to my funders and say the minimum wage is going up, the competition in other industries is going up and we need to push this (wages) up,” said D’Eon.
As it is, he said lifeguards employed by the Nova Scotia Lifeguard Service are unionized and can get 40 hours or more of work from July 1 to Aug. 31. D’Eon said the base rate for a beginner lifeguard is between $14.79 and $16.91.
“Hopefully we’ll be able to solve this (shortage) at least for this year,” he said. “I think it’s going to get better because we are making a special effort to get people trained.”
This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 26, 2022.
Keith Doucette, The Canadian Press