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Nation’s lifeguard shortage arrives on South Florida’s beaches

Sun Sentinel logoSun Sentinel 6/23/2022 Shira Moolten, South Florida Sun-Sentinel
Lifeguard Maria Aponte walks to the shore with her rescue board at Fort Lauderdale beach on June 13, 2022. © John McCall/South Florida Sun-Sentinel/TNS Lifeguard Maria Aponte walks to the shore with her rescue board at Fort Lauderdale beach on June 13, 2022.

On a peaceful June morning at the beach in Deerfield, a swimmer glided past, a woman napped in the sun, and the lifeguards set up at their stations, unhurried. There was no emergency. And yet Mike Brown, the beach’s ocean rescue chief, looked out at the water with unease.

“I don’t know what to do; you have any advice?” he asked, semi-jokingly.

Six years after parts of the “Baywatch” movie were filmed here, Brown is struggling to sell the dream. Deerfield Beach’s lifeguard tryouts used to attract 20, sometimes 30, hopefuls for only two positions. At his last tryout, Brown needed to fill eight positions. Four people showed up.

A nationwide lifeguard shortage is acute in South Florida, where lifeguards work year-round, not just in summer. This year, beachside cities have failed to garner the kind of interest they once relied on, many with more vacancies on their hands than they can fill, their lifeguards working overtime. Meanwhile, alongside the deluge of new residents, more tourists are expected to visit South Florida this summer than in previous years, adding to the strain.

“Lifeguarding is a public safety job and they’re responsible for people’s lives,” said Julia Leo, Palm Beach County’s ocean rescue chief. “A lot of people don’t want that responsibility anymore.”

In South Florida, each city oversees its own ocean rescue team, which means the pay, benefits and requirements for the job change depending on which part of the beach you’re on. According to job listings, a new full-time lifeguard can now make $17 an hour in Delray Beach, $18 in Boca Raton and over $19 in Fort Lauderdale.

Broward County’s beach cities who have lifeguards hire from the same pool to fill full-time and part-time positions. Full-time lifeguards in one city typically work part-time in others.

Due to the shortage, these cities are competing for a limited number of qualified lifeguards. Recently, Deerfield lost two potential lifeguards to two other nearby beaches, Brown said.

Right now, Deerfield has about 10 total vacancies, including full-time and part-time. Fort Lauderdale has one full-time vacancy, but they don’t have a set number of part-time positions. Hollywood has six. Boca Raton has nine. Dania Beach has four vacancies, which Michael Huck, the ocean rescue chief, said they simply can’t fill.

Palm Beach County has eight part-time or seasonal vacancies, soon to be 14 when six part-time lifeguards get promoted to full-time. The county has had to close Peanut Island completely since October, without the seasonal lifeguards they’d typically hire to watch the popular boating party spot.

Each government designates a budget for a certain number of full-time and part-time positions. Palm Beach County and others have had an easier time finding and keeping full-time lifeguards, who are more committed to the job and receive higher pay and benefits. But they need seasonal lifeguards to cover beaches that open only part of the year, like Peanut Island, and to take over when full-time lifeguards need a break or aren’t available.

Vacancies also don’t tell the whole story. Most beaches, regardless of vacancy numbers, are also seeing fewer applicants, especially those qualified for the job.

While Boca Raton’s vacancy numbers are normal for this time of year, “there appears to be less interest in the profession overall and the pool of candidates is smaller than prior years,” city spokesperson Ileana Olmsted wrote in an email.

Video: Lifeguard shortage across the country (ABC News)


Fort Lauderdale had to host its first open call tryout in decades this summer. In the past, they would invite only select applicants.

“I thought we got a good turnout,” said Gio Serrano, the acting Fort Lauderdale ocean rescue chief. “HR was thinking we were going to have a bigger turnout.”

The problem, Serrano said, has less to do with finding applicants and more to do with finding certified applicants. Before they can even apply, lifeguards must have completed all the required certifications, which can cost hundreds of dollars. This year, in an effort to incentivize more applicants, Fort Lauderdale will certify the lifeguards and pay for it. All they have to do is pass the swim test.

Others say it’s all about the money. Increase their salaries, and the lifeguards will come back.

“We are not experiencing any kind of lifeguard shortage, and you can quote me on that,” said Jim McCrady, Hallandale’s Ocean Rescue Chief. “There’s never been a lifeguard shortage in the history of lifeguards that hasn’t been solved by paying them more and giving them better benefits.”

Hallandale raised its starting pay over $2 an hour for both part-time and full-time lifeguards, and offers “a very liberal benefits package,” McCrady said, including a pension and a 401k.

Most other cities haven’t offered the same kinds of financial incentives, even if their ocean rescue chiefs would have wanted to. Serrano said he recommended increasing hourly rates beyond the cost of living adjustment, but it’s out of his control. Cities control the salaries, and many did not account for the shortage.

“It’s different from the private sector where I could go to my boss and demand a raise and they give it to me because I’m so awesome,” said Joann Hussey, a spokesperson for the city of Hollywood.

While Hollywood’s pool lifeguard shortage is primarily due to low pay, Hussey thinks that the beach lifeguard shortage has more to do with the job itself.

“Salary isn’t the deterrent,” Hussey said. “The issue with the beach is the physical demands of the job.”

Lifeguards must be able to both run and swim 500 meters in under 11 minutes. At Hollywood’s latest tryout, six people showed up, and only two passed the physical test. The city is currently trying to recruit college athletes.

“If someone’s interested in becoming a lifeguard with the city of Hollywood, we would love to talk with you,” Hussey said.

Beach lifeguards don’t only have to save people from drowning, but respond to any emergency that happens on the beach.

“It comes with a fair amount of blood and guts and unsightly things, so you do have to be wired a certain way to be able to perform this job,” Serrano said. But he wouldn’t have it any other way.

“It does let you have an impact on the community. And you get to wear shorts in the meantime, and train in the ocean on days when no one else can,” he added. “You can enjoy the ocean on days that people would only die in the ocean. There is very little money in the world that can give you the sense that those things can give you here.”

In other parts of the country, lifeguard towers sit vacant. Beaches are closed, or signs read “Swim at your own risk.” Some, in an effort to remain open, even have lifeguards patrol on ATVs. But not South Florida, at least not yet.

Most beaches refuse to institute “Swim at your own risk” policies. For now, they remain open to the public and guarded. If someone isn’t available, then their lifeguards work overtime. In Deerfield, sometimes supervisors sit in the tower.

“It’s scary, because we want to make sure people are safe,” said Brown. “You never want to leave a lifeguard stand empty.”

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