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Lifeguards keep it safe at NJ vacation spots

Eric Sucar
Seasonal beach badges on the beach in Ocean Grove on April 13.

Staff Writer

As millions of people flock to the Jersey Shore, pools and amusement parks for their summer getaways, thousands of men and women work to ensure those visits to the water are safe.

From Sandy Hook to Cape May, New Jersey has approximately 130 miles of beaches, complete with warm sand, salty air and the foam-tipped waves of the Atlantic Ocean.

“It’s not an easy job and certainly not a glorious job. When you take the time to think about what you’re responsible for, the public can be tough,” Ocean Township Recreation Director Kathy Reiser said of lifeguarding. “When you’re a 15- or 16-year-old, that’s a tough position to be in.”

With no beaches to speak of, Ocean Township offers three municipal pools, a kiddie pool, a dive tank and an Olympic-sized swimming pool for visitors to use during the summer months. In an effort to make sure the pool is a safe place to visit, Reiser said the township regularly employs 18-20 lifeguards, each working shifts from Memorial Day to Labor Day.

“It’s all eyes and ears on deck when we’re trying to keep our pools as a safe venue,” Reiser said.

Though the township has had a history of hiring teenagers and early twenty-somethings to take the lifeguard role at its pools, the municipality has seen a recent decline in interest for the positions.

The downward trend, Reiser said, is due to a slowly recovering job market that gives high school and college students a chance at other jobs that do not require people “to be responsible for somebody’s life” and pay significantly more.

“What we had seen was a significant decline in the availability of qualified staff,” Reiser said. “For a number of years, we have run our own lifeguard training class, so we would train and then be able to pull from that class to guard the pool. We saw a significant decline in people registering for that.”

To make up for that shortcoming, Ocean Township is contracting out for its lifeguard services for the second consecutive year, with this year’s batch coming from American Pool New Jersey, which specializes in aquatic safety services.

And while services like American Pool New Jersey are working to help municipalities and private entities deal with such a shortfall of workers, that same decline also exists for those services.

“When things are really booming in the economy, it gets harder because there’s more competition because everybody wants the summer help,” American Pool New Jersey President Ben Basch said. “When you have a lot of businesses looking to bring on internships, that’s when we lose our best people.”

On an average year, Basch said his company hires upwards of 1,800 lifeguards to cover three regions across the state.

Along with municipalities, local organizations like the YMCA of Metuchen have also seen a decrease in the number of people looking to become a lifeguard.

“We have seen a shortage in recent years which we attribute to the demands of the job and the high level of responsibility,” YMCA Metuchen Director of Operations Marie Patterson said.

As an organization that has pools on its premises, the YMCA employs only adult lifeguards with extensive training to ensure the safety of its members.

“Our lifeguards attend camp trainings, attend in-service aquatic safety trainings monthly, practice drills with their co-workers and review online videos provided by Y of the USA and Redwoods Insurance,” Patterson said. “The summer presents challenges as lifeguards adjust to heat and sun glare. We provide adequate rotations to keep our guards focused and to ensure they are properly hydrated.”

Just like municipalities with public pools, shore towns that line the state’s more than 130 miles of coast also rely on lifeguards to keep their beaches safe. Towns such as Long Branch, which boasts more than two miles of beaches, regularly hire anywhere from teenagers to college juniors for their lifeguard positions.

According to Long Branch Office of Emergency Management and Beach Operations Coordinator Stanley Dziubo, approximately 80 people are hired each season to patrol the beaches, along with 70 ticket takers, 15 comfort station attendants and other positions.

Despite the downward trend that some municipalities are facing with finding capable candidates, Dziubo said hiring has remained steady in Long Branch since it started back in March.

“It’s usually not a problem finding employees because a lot of them are returning students,” Dziubo said. “We have quite a long waiting list, as far as people looking for jobs …. We’re in real good shape.”

Like Ocean Township, Long Branch has a junior lifeguard program that helps younger people learn about the job by the time they become 14 years old. An additional mandatory lifeguard academy is held each season to make sure new and seasoned members of the team are ready for the coming season.

Dziubo said at least 10 EMTs are regularly on call to be ready for anything at Long Branch’s 17 beaches. Unlike a municipal pool, which is confined to a certain space, coastal lifeguards have a particularly difficult job thanks to the unpredictable nature of the weather and ocean.

“We’re constantly concerned about the currents and riptides,” Dziubo said. “As far as the weather goes, we have monitoring stations … that monitor lightning strikes from faraway distances so we can clear the beach.”

Though a majority of people will take to the beaches this summer, other attractions like Six Flags Hurricane Harbor in Jackson will be yet another option to cool off. Spanning 45 acres, the amusement park’s water park extension features a dozen rides, slides and pools for its visitors.

With its inherent difference from regular pools or beaches, Six Flags Hurricane Harbor Aquatics Manager Jessica Handoga said the safety of its patrons carries a more nuanced set of requirements.

“What makes Hurricane Harbor unique is the variety of attractions we have and the fact that they do not all operate the same way,” Handoga said. “All lifeguards go through a very detailed and lengthy training on all policies and procedures per attraction. They must pass this training for us to put them on stand.”

Approximately 180 lifeguards are hired each season by Six Flags, with each completing a litany of tests.

“Our lifeguards complete an extensive training prior to even being offered a position to make sure they meet the high safety standards we set for them,” Handoga said.

The lifeguard skills training policies and procedures, set by Jeff Ellis and Associates, require that all park lifeguards are trained in dry-land care, including CPR and first aid, as well as a number of different in-water rescues. Additionally, lifeguards also attend in-service training four times per month.

Jeff Ellis and Associates is an aquatic safety and risk-management consulting firm based out of Florida.

Failure at any portion of their testing will bar an applicant from becoming a lifeguard at the theme park.

“Safety is always our number one priority,” Handoga said. “Every day, lifeguards are randomly audited in a number of ways. We audit dispatching at the tops of the towers, how they are scanning their water, CPR/first aid, as well as lifelike in-water rescues and scenarios.”

Though many attribute beach and pool safety to just lifeguards, there are dozens more individuals who go into making a public bathing area safe for everyone involved.

“It’s everybody from front office to maintenance personnel to management, and as long as we work together as a team, we think we do a pretty good job offering a nice, safe, fun facility,” Reiser said.

Safety preparations for the summer months generally take the entire year, with municipalities and organizations conducting multiple equipment checks and improvements.

For places like Ocean Township’s public pools, efforts can include making sure geese are kept out of the pool area to “reduce the amount of fecal matter” in the water and letting the state health commission test pools, the snack bar and facilities. Weekly water tests are also sent to state and county health commissions.

“Aside from what we do ourselves to ensure that the pool is safe, we have outside entities that absolutely keep an eye on things,” Reiser said.

As for beaches, municipalities like Long Branch spend nearly nine months getting ready for the summer.

“All winter long we’re preparing by redoing our ticket booths and lifeguard stands, as well as other things,”  Dziubo said. “We really kick it into gear in March … it’s quite a rigorous process that starts then until Memorial Day, and once we’re done, then we’ll still have a couple weeks of preparation before schools let out.”

With a little more than two miles of shore consisting of 17 beaches, work to ensure the beaches are well maintained and ready for the large influx of tourists is a “huge group effort,” Dziubo said, with members of OEM, the local fire companies, the state Department of Environmental Protection and other departments working together.

Teams rake for storm debris on the beach during the off-season. During the summer, teams take to the beaches between 2-8 a.m. every day to rake for other objects like trash or other items left by visitors.

Though his teams of about 40 beach cleaners work to keep the areas clean each day, Dziubo said care for the beaches should be a two-way street.

“You can come to the beach and enjoy yourself, but please try to clean up after yourself — that’s our number one problem,” Dziubo said. “It’s your beach, too.”


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