'Where have all the lifeguards gone?': Shortage forces northern B.C. pools to reduce hours

Pools in northern B.C. are dealing with a shortage of qualified lifeguards, forcing some facilities to scale back their hours as they try to recruit new people to the job.

The B.V. Regional Pool in Smithers has had to close on Sundays, while the Earl Mah Aquatic Centre in Prince Rupert has cut back its operations back by about a dozen hours a week.

Prince Rupert recreation director David Geronazzo said the reduced hours are especially challenging as the days get shorter and temperatures drop.

"If you've got an expectation to be able to come down and use the facility, it can be frustrating," he said.

The lifeguard shortage is a problem facing pools across B.C., and even around the world, according to Sean Healy with the B.C. Recreation and Parks Association.

"I [spoke] with a pool programmer from London, England, and also one from Beijing, who both said the same thing," he said. "Where have all the lifeguards gone?"

Healy said the low number of lifeguards can be linked to an overall shortage of service industry workers. 

"We don't have as many young staff coming in and taking jobs," he said.

B.V. Regional Pool and Recreation Centre

Geronazzo said the intensive certification process to become a lifeguard is also a barrier. 

Lifeguard hopefuls must take several courses, including first aid, water safety and lifeguard certification. These courses can take more than 150 hours to complete and cost thousands of dollars.

"Even at the start of the certification process, you really need to know how to swim," said Geronazzo. "Because it's a physical skill, it takes time and investment in yourself to get to that point."

Lowered costs, more baby boomers

In an effort to make the training more accessible, the pool in Smithers has lowered the cost of the entry-level Bronze Cross and Bronze Medallion courses, said facility manager Tamara Gillis.

The organization also established its own training program to reduce the travel burden for lifeguard trainees in the small northern B.C. community.

"We're all doing the best we can to keep the facility open as much as we can," she said. 

The Smithers pool has hired seven student lifeguards since June, but Gillis said it's still not enough.

"We still would need to hire between six and probably 10 [more lifeguards] to get back to normal," she said.

Healy said some organizations are tackling the problem by looking beyond students and young adults for prospective hires.

"They're appealing to many of those boomers who are retiring and saying, 'Hey, it's not just a young persons job.'" he said.