Fewer lifeguards will be on duty this summer in CT. Here's what that means.

Photo of Peter Yankowski
Connecticut officials say there will be more empty lifeguard chairs this summer due to low staffing levels.

Connecticut officials say there will be more empty lifeguard chairs this summer due to low staffing levels.

Jarret Liotta / Jarret Liotta

Beach combers and swimmers may notice more “no lifeguard on duty” signs at Connecticut’s beaches this summer as the state and local swimming areas contend with a national shortage in lifeguards.

At state parks, staffing for lifeguards is down 63 percent from pre-pandemic levels, but around the same as it was last summer, according to Will Healey, a spokesman for the state’s Department of Energy and Environmental Protection.

The state isn’t the only one short on lifeguards.

“It’s very difficult,” said Sarah Sheaffer, waterfront director for the town of New Fairfield.

She said the town normally likes to have 16 lifeguards, but now has about 10. Staff members are responsible for monitoring two town beaches on Candlewood Lake, which requires six lifeguards on weekends when the beaches are most crowded. If one lifeguard can’t make a shift, the town closes one of the beaches rather than allowing people to swim at their own risk.

Sheaffer said she’s taken to social media to try to get the word out, but staffing has been slow. One candidate recently interviewed, but took a better paying offer elsewhere, she said.

Before she became the director, Sheaffer said she had heard about the shortage. “I was like ‘it can’t be that bad,’” she said, but she soon realized how difficult it was to keep the beach staffed.

Sheaffer said the shortage may be because lifeguard certification classes shut down during the pandemic, including one at the local high school that usually served as a feeder for candidates. But as a former competitive swimmer, she also attributed the drying pool of candidates to lack of interest in the sport, which often drove teens into summer jobs as lifeguards.

New Fairfield’s lifeguards also have to be waterfront certified, a step beyond a lifeguard certification for a pool, Sheaffer said.

Because the staff members work on a lake shore, they conduct multiple search-and-rescue drills, which includes skimming the bottom of the lake. A common test meant to simulate finding someone on the lake floor involves a staff member throwing a traffic cone into the water and lifeguards dive to the bottom.

Healey said the state plans to put lifeguards at six of the eight swimming areas it normally staffs, including the four shoreline state parks — Hammonasset in Madison, Silver Sands in Milford, Sherwood Island in Westport and Rocky Neck in Niantic.

“We’re thrilled with the staffing we do have,” he said. But he said it’s “far from” what the agency would like to have in terms of lifeguards.

Healey said because the state has faced similar challenges with staffing lifeguard positions in the past, it’s hard to say whether the latest shortage is the result of the pandemic.

DEEP’s lifeguard hiring deadline was June 1. New lifeguards need around 40 hours of training with the agency, Healey said, but DEEP is still hiring for other positions.

State lifeguards must be at least 16 years old and pay for the position starts at $14 an hour.

Healey said staff will put up “no lifeguard on duty” signs, meaning swimmers can still go in the water at their own risk. For families with younger children who want to have a lifeguard on duty, he recommended calling ahead to the state park to make sure one will be working that day.

In Norwalk, the city had to open up hiring for five lifeguard positions twice after the Parks and Recreation department didn’t receive enough applications the first time.

“We only got a couple applications the first time,” said Pam Raila, the department’s aquatic director, who said it was unusual to have to reopen the application process.

After the second round of hiring, she was able to fill the remaining positions. In her case, she said the open positions were the result of previous lifeguards graduating from college. But she also said she is able to get applicants from Norwalk High School, where students can take a course to receive their lifeguard certification.

The national shortage isn’t being felt everywhere.

In Stamford, the recreation services has not seen a shortage of lifeguards in a number of years, said Laurie Albano, the city’s superintendent of recreation.

She noted that lifeguards are unionized with pay starting at $16 to $18 an hour. Lifeguards also have opportunities to work during the winter at open swim and swimming lessons, she said.