DULUTH – The Duluth-area Family YMCA needs more lifeguards before it can begin fully staffing the Park Point lifeguard position this summer. But Cheryl Podtburg, risk manager for the local Y, still hopes to be able to recruit enough certified lifeguards or train new ones before swimmers return to the cold and sometimes dangerous waters of Lake Superior.
To help meet its needs, the Y is willing to waive the $250 it typically charges for a lifeguard course and will offer conditional job offers in advance to lifeguard candidates who successfully achieve certification. The starting wage for a lifeguard at the local Y is $14 an hour, up from the pre-pandemic hourly rate of $11. Lifeguards also receive a free Y membership as a bonus.
Duluth is far from alone in struggling to find rescuers. The American Lifeguard Association recently told Newsweek that at least a third of all public swimming pools nationwide will likely be forced to close this summer due to a lack of enough lifeguards.
The city relies on the Y as a partner to staff Park Point Beach with lifeguards each summer.
If the Y is understaffed to meet that need this year, the city may only be able to offer that service partially, more intermittently, or not at all, in which case the public should swim at their own risk, said Alicia Watts, assistant director of the Duluth Department of Parks and Recreation. That’s why city staff stepped forward with the Y on Wednesday to publicly plead for more lifeguards.
“We’ll know more by the end of this month when we see how many applications we’re getting,” Watts said.
Duluth Fire Chief Shawn Krizaj said the Y is “a very important part of our beach safety program and our response.”
“We’ve had a really good partnership and collaboration for years between our fire department and the parks and recreation department and of course the YMCA, which provides the lifeguards,” he said.
In addition to providing water rescue services when needed, Duluth lifeguards play an important role in educating the public, Krizaj said.
“They informed people of some of the general dangers of Lake Superior. It’s cold water. It’s a big lake. There are currents. It’s not like going to your cabin,” said said Krizaj, noting that it’s impossible to say how many people Duluth’s lifeguards avoided getting into trouble in the water.
And early intervention lifeguards can provide a struggling swimmer are invaluable and far preferable to calling 911, he said.
“More often than not, when we are called upon, it really can be a matter of life and death,” he said. Last year, Duluth first responders received 40 water rescue calls last year, making it one of the busiest years for the on-water fire department in recent memory.
Last year, Park Point lifeguards administered 21 minor first aid and responded to 12 major incidents, including water rescues and 911 calls. They also allow visitors to sign dozens of life jackets.
So far, Podtburg says the Y has been able to avoid cutting pool hours, but it hasn’t been easy.
Between our downtown and Hermantown pools, we’re incredibly short,” Podtburg said. When comfortably staffed in the past, the Downtown Y could rely on a team of 25 lifeguards. plan to return to their homes outside the city for the summer, Podtburg said she faces the very real prospect that pool hours will have to be reduced.
The Y can employ lifeguards as young as 16 in its indoor pools, but Park Point lifeguards must be at least 18 years old. Podtburg stressed that lifeguards don’t need to be young – strong swimmers of any age could make excellent candidates, she said.
In-person swimming lessons and lifeguard training were halted at the start of the pandemic, from March to June 2020, but Podtburg said the Duluth Y did a good job of bringing those lessons back quickly. Nonetheless, she predicts that the disruption of the pandemic will likely have a continuing effect on the reduced number of lifeguards available for some time.
She said the Y often hires people who have been certified as lifeguards to work at summer camps, but many of those camps have either closed or operated at reduced capacity during the pandemic, creating a another problem in the pipeline.
“I’ve worked on the beach every summer since the Duluth Y started this partnership with the city, and I love it,” Podtburg said. “You can stand outside and talk to people and tell them about this town.”
Watts said it’s no coincidence that lifeguard services are paid for using resort tax revenue. “That tells you how much of an impact they have on tourists who come to the beach. They educate people on what it’s like to swim in this big lake that has rip currents, where the waves can come up and the wind can change quickly.It’s very different from swimming on a smaller lake.
Questions regarding employment as a lifeguard at the Y and/or Park Point can be directed to Cheryl Podtburg at [email protected] or 218-722-4745, ext. 115.