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The lifeguard shortage: Q&A with Joe Chirico

The Regional District of Central Kootenay noted last week that a shortage of lifeguards is having an impact on hours at local aquatic centres. We spoke with community services general manager Joe Chirico to find out more.

What’s going on with hours at local aquatic centres?
Across the regional district and in other facilities in the province and Canada we’re still struggling with our lifeguarding staffing numbers. Some centres have been impacted more than others but we just want to let people know to continue to check the schedules for changes.

In particular, a change coming April 1 is that our Nelson facility hours on the weekends will be reduced from 9-6 to 9-4. Unfortunately, these changes seem to be happening more quickly right now. We have some people going off to school opportunities or changing work. We do see that we’re hopefully getting to a place of being more stable but at the moment we’re definitely seeing impacts of small staffing changes to hours.

Are any specific programs affected?
It hasn’t resulted in the cancellation of programs but more to the general operating hours of public swims.

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What can you do to attract lifeguards? 
It’s proving to be challenging. Typically any of our operations would have a natural attrition of guards. In any given year, we would lose three to six guards but would have at least that many and more come on. What we’re experiencing right now is we’ve got in some cases a lot of young staff. We don’t have staff to supervise them. That’s where we’re particularly vulnerable, and that’s what’s impacting the Nelson and District Community Complex staffing on the weekends starting in April: a lack of experienced lifeguards in order to supervise the operations.

When it comes to a facility like Nelson which is very busy, it’s a complex guarding situation where we have multiple bodies of water and a water slide, we like to make sure for the safety of all patrons that we have qualified guards who can help direct staff in emergencies. Although all guards are trained, until you have real-life experience, those can be difficult situations to navigate. It’s important to have experienced staff we have confidence in to direct other staff and the public when those situations come up.

Every place has had fluctuation. We’re not at pre-pandemic levels at any of our pools. That’s where we’re trying to get to. We’re not measuring ourselves against what we were doing last week, but what we were doing in 2019.

You mean in terms of lifeguard staffing?
Staffing and the hours we’re able to provide.

What about attendance? Is it back to pre-pandemic levels or is it still down?
We’re seeing a fairly strong return. In Creston and Castlegar, attendance for the hours we’re open has reached those same levels. In Nelson we’re actually seeing an increase over where we were in 2019. I think most patrons in Nelson will attest to the fact that especially in January and February, whether it be the fitness facility, public skates, or public swims, those services have seen a lot of use.

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