ST. LUCIE COUNTY, Fla. — St. Lucie County is offering competitive pay and incentives for lifeguards as right now the county has half the lifeguards that they need for their pools to be open full time.
"Pre-2010 Ravenswood used to be open year-round, 12 months out of the year," Erick Gill, the communications director with St. Lucie County, said. "Then after the housing market crashed, we had to do cutbacks and we lost 38% of our staff and pools went to summers only.
"Over time we were able to build staff back up and the goal was to open pools year-round, however we've been struggling to find lifeguards."
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Exactly one week into summer, lifeguards at Ravenswood Pool in Port St. Lucie said they've been feeling the heat.
"It has been very chaotic to say the least," Lincoln Landry, a lifeguard and assistant supervisor with St. Lucie County, said. "Today we had 145 people come in. We had 100 people in the water. We need a lot more lifeguards, a lot more swim instructors and we could do with some more supervisors as well."
St. Lucie County needs one lifeguard for every 25 people in the pool.
"We were patrolling at this end, patrolling at that end and an extra guard. We just wanted to be safe," Cathy Fox-Pardo, the interim aquatic coordinator/program supervisor for St. Lucie County, said.
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Fox-Pardo said because of the shortages, all three St. Lucie County pools are operating at reduced hours, and lifeguards have had to shuffle between county pools depending on the need and weather.
"I'd like to open all three of my pools seven days a week but we're not able to do that," Fox-Pardo said.
The new pay will hopefully recruit and retain more lifeguards long term.
“Last year the starting pay was $10.50. Now it’s up to $16.25. How could you say no?" Lincoln said.
Fox-Prado said they also offer basic safety instructor certifications for lifeguards, which increases their pay to $16.58, and returning lifeguards also get extra money.
"I feel proud now to be able to say we’re paying $16.25. Last year it was embarrassing to try to encourage them in with a pay that wasn't competitive to the outside world," Fox-Prado said. "I've been doing this for a lot of years and I want to mentor the lifeguards coming up."
The county is also willing to train lifeguards on the job to keep pools open year round.
"Being a lifeguard is a great job," Landry said. "You get trained in first aid, CPR. It's a great life skill to learn. It’s a fun job. You’re at the pool all day, you’re sitting in the sun. What better could there be?"
So far this year the Florida Department of Children and Families said 44 children have drowned in the Sunshine State with 64% children 3 years old or younger.
"I hear way too often where people aren't making this life-saving skill the priority that it should be," Deni Gillespie, a swim coach with Swim Squad, said.
Gillespie said she offers swim classes to adults and children.
"To me it's an essential life skill. It's as important as going to school and learning to read," Gillespie said.
She said drownings can occur in 20 seconds.
Gillespie has been a lifeguard trainer for 40 years, and many of the people she's trained to swim have gone on to be lifeguards.
Sixteen lifeguard positions are open in St Lucie County. You can apply on the county's website.