Today’s Poll

Pool people sought to fill the ranks of the pandemically depleted aquatic centres

Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
By Timothy Schafer Local Journalism Initiative Reporter
May 10th, 2023

Eight years ago Amanda Beavers dove into the world of aquatics looking for possibility and opportunity.

Eight years later she is one of the aquatic and community leaders, and the regional programmer for all aquatic facilities in the regional district, school outreach and leadership development, having trained more people as lifesaving instructors and lifeguards than anyone else in the Kootenay region — enough to recognize her for a regional award.

But it wasn’t for the accolades that the mother of two entered into aquatics as a career, instead it was the search for a sense of community — teaching someone a life skill in swimming — and, eventually, leadership building.

However, the natural cycle of development for lifeguards — a career typically lasts around two-and-a-half years — was interrupted for a span of nearly 18 months while the COVID-19 pandemic restricted pool access and, at times, outright closed the facility.

As a result, the Nelson and District Community Complex — like the aquatic facilities in Creston and Castlegar — is struggling to field a full complement of staff at times, currently leading to reduced operating hours.

What those reduced hours will be is shared daily on each facility’s recorded phone greeting, on facility signs, social media and on the RDCK’s website (People are advised to double-check the schedule since information may change quickly).

Current lifeguard staff have been leaving to pursue other career paths and the RDCK pools do not have enough trained and experienced people to operate the pools at full capacity right now, said RDCK general manager of Community Services, Joe Chirico.

“We have been playing catch-up in our succession of experienced staff, due to the interruption in training and development for future lifeguards and swim instructors,” he said earlier this year. “Our goal is to get back to pre-pandemic service delivery, and without more staff, including aquatics leadership at all our pools, the hours will continue to be limited and will continue to fluctuate.”

In July 2022 Chirico said the lifeguard shortage was the reason for the closure of the outdoor Gyro Park Pool in Nelson, but he stated at the time that the real problem was going to surface later on, which it did late last year when pools reduced their operating hours.

Every fall aquatic centres lose lifeguards that are returning to school, Chirico said.

“Come fall we may see our aquatic hours at the NDCC drop because of the fact that we have lost that pool of lifeguards,” he predicted.

Although the RDCK had been working in all of its aquatic centres to increase the lifeguarding career pool, Chirico said, there is a lack of human resources almost across all sectors. He said the primary issue is people aging out of the workforce, and more people retiring than people entering into the workforce.

During COVID-19 the regional district couldn’t do any external training, nor could it develop its leaders within house because it either wasn’t open or was so restricted it wasn’t able to, said Beavers.

With restrictions lifted and business as usual at the aquatic centre it will still take some time to kickstart and engage the career cycle for lifeguards, said Beavers.

“It is a graduated system for training; you don’t just jump in,” she said. “The training is critical … because a bad day at work in an aquatic environment is a pretty bad day.

“We need time to develop that experience, for that responsibility, because that responsibility is very real.”

With a staff of nearly 25 at the NDCC, only six of the lifeguards are supervisors. Beavers said in pre-pandemic times the NDCC had around 12 supervisors. The rule of thumb is to have one guard for every 40 patrons, but each guard needs a trained backup, thus complicating the numbers game.

And with many lifeguards still in school, daytime aquatic hours see a reduction since there are fewer available guards, said Chirico.

“We can’t forget that where we are really short is in experienced guards, people choosing to make it a little bit more of a career than just the student kind of a job,” he said.

With the B.C. minimum wage rising to $16.75 per hour, it now meets what the regional district pays a lifeguard, he explained, closing what used to be a $4-$5 per hour divide.

Right now the regional district is running lifeguard courses whether they financially break even or not, Chirico said, and treating them as training programs.

 

Jumping in

Anybody interested in pursuing lifeguard or swim instructor certification can contact any RDCK facility or visit rdck.ca/recreationfor information about training opportunities and potential support at all RDCK facilities.

All RDCK aquatics and recreation job opportunities are posted at www.rdck.ca/jobs.

People can apply for free training for becoming a lifeguard — 120 hours of training worth around $1,300 to obtain — through a new regional district course just moving live late last week.

People can go to www.RDCK.ca/gettraining to apply and get more information.

The training plan is endorsed by all recreation commissions, as well as paying for aquatic centre staff to take supervisory courses and advanced leadership courses.

“(The RDCK) is putting their money where we can give people tangible tools, where we can build aquatics again,” said Beavers

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