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Is the City Doing Enough to Recruit New Coney Island Lifeguards?

Those wacky Ice Breakers and Polar Bears might be the only ones frolicking in the frigid Coney Island waters in the dead of winter, but concern is growing that the Parks Department might not have local beaches ready for the masses come the summer. “We don’t want to go through a repeat of 2005,” said Community Board 13 Chairman Brian Gotlieb. Last year, many in Coney Island fumed on the scorching summer sand as they found bay after bay off limits because the city didn’t have enough qualified lifeguards to man the beaches. “As chair of the community board, it’s my responsibility to look after the community,” said Gotlieb. “Their needs have to be addressed. You can’t say you have to walk a half mile to go swimming.” That kind of outcry spurred a kind of “lifeguard summit” back in December at Borough Hall in which local elected officials and the city tried to hammer out concrete ways to recruit an adequate number of new lifeguards for the upcoming season. Among the things discussed to accomplish that goal included re-establishing swimming classes at all New York City public schools and conducting aggressive community outreach. But community voices like Gotlieb complain that the Parks Department is more interested in passing the buck along to the Department of Education rather than tackling the lifeguard shortage head on. “What are they doing to spread the word?” Gotlieb said. “We need a concerted effort in order to do this.” The Parks Department argues that it has in fact begun such a process sending out recruitment materials to every high school, college and public or private parochial school in New York City; while also contacted elected officials and community boards, as well as other organizations like the YMCA, Red Cross, Catholic Youth Organization, and PSAL The Parks Department has made significant progress in recruiting new lifeguards in Queens partnering with Region 5. It recently completed lifeguard testing at Far Rockaway and John Adams high schools. But scheduling problems have delayed the implementation of similar programs at New Utrecht High School, 1601 80th Street, however. “We think that might be a source of kids we haven’t had in previous years,” said First Deputy Parks Commissioner Liam Kavanagh. Gotlieb agrees wholeheartedly, saying that many of those new recruits should have already been signed up. “Why did they wait until January?” Gotlieb wondered. “It just seemed that the Parks Department blamed the Department of Education [for the delay]. Of course they have a hand in it, but the Parks Department doesn’t get away with throwing up their hands and walking away.” Ideally, the Parks Department would like to have a pool of 1200 lifeguards to deploy across the city’s beaches this summer. “I don’t know if we ever had that,” said Kavanagh. “We need 400 to 450 new lifeguards. Looking at it realistically, if we had 100 more than last year that would be enough to take care of problems that we had.” Roughly 750 veteran lifeguards are expected to return to their posts this summer. “I know they’re trying hard to recruit,” said Judy Orlando of the Astella Development Corporation. “A lot of good ideas came out of the summit. It’s just a combination of getting qualified people and good pay.” On that score, New York City lags way behind other major American cities like Los Angeles and San Diego. Los Angeles lifeguards, for instance, earn $18.40 an hour, while San Diego lifeguards earn 15.16 an hour. New York City lifeguards, by contrast, only take in $10.71 an hour their first year and $12.24 the year after that. “Parks has said that money is not the issue, then I don’t know why we’re stuck at an impasse,” said Gotlieb. The Parks Department is reportedly trying to court high caliber swimmers from several local centers of higher education like St. Francis College where its water polo team went all the way to the NCAA finals last year. Conflicts with the work status of some of the foreign-born members of the St. Francis College team have complicated those recruitment efforts, however, according to Kavanagh. “We want to get to competitive swimmers,” he said. “We’re looking to overcome that hurdle.” The Parks Department has begun sowing the seeds for future generations of lifeguards expanding its recreation center-based Learn-to-Swim program which takes place at the city’s indoor and outdoor pools. Last summer the number of Learn-to-Swim sites rose from 18 to 33, followed by a 15 percent increase in attendance, according to the Parks Department. New Utrecht now also offers the city’s lifeguard certification course, instead of the Red Cross course that they had been offering. Gotlieb still wants the Parks Department do a better job of getting the word out about the immediate need for new lifeguard recruits. “The Parks Department should reach out to groups is in the community,” he said. “We have so many young adults who need jobs.” “I think we’re all working hard to make that happen,” said Orlando. “We’re putting the word out in our newsletter and we’re putting signs up in our window.” Information about the Parks Department’s lifeguard training course can be found at www.nycgovparks.org.

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