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Parks department needs 600 lifeguards by May

Wednesday, February 10, 2021 by Sean Saldaña

In anticipation of the upcoming swim season, Parks and Recreation Department Director Kimberly McNeeley submitted a memorandum to City Council on Jan. 22 that contained an update on maintenance and staffing in the city’s aquatics department.

The memo states that the Aquatic Division is looking to hire 600 lifeguards for the summer season. In a follow-up email, a PARD representative told the Monitor that the size of the entire division is 750.

The division is currently operating under modified coronavirus rules, with five year-round facilities still open: Bartholomew, Barton Springs, Deep Eddy, Springwoods, and Stacy pools.

City pools, which began reopening at the end of September, now operate with capacity requirements, allowing only lap swimming and restricting all activities to in-water usage of the facilities – meaning patrons aren’t permitted to sunbathe or lounge on the premises. Even as other parks facilities were further locked down in December, pools remained open with 25 percent capacity limits.

As Covid-19 began to spread throughout Central Texas last spring, lifeguard training and onboarding came to a screeching halt. The report details that there have been no new lifeguard training sessions since March of last year.

The aquatics division has 130 trained and certified lifeguards on staff, putting the department in a staffing bind. The division estimates that in preparation for summer, it will need to train, certify and hire an additional 600 guards in the coming months.

To handle the staffing challenge, the memo lays out seven recruitment tactics: hosting virtual hiring events, attending virtual college job fairs, a comprehensive social media campaign, building partnerships with local high schools’ media outlets, increasing paid advertising, streamlining training classes, and using technology to improve the hiring process.

The recruitment effort has another logistical challenge: Lifeguard training requires a certain amount of in-person instruction. The memo points out, “It is not appropriate to conduct typical lifeguard training courses while Austin-Travis County remains in Stage 4 and Stage 5 Risk categories.”

As a workaround, lifeguard class sizes will be limited to 10 people per class, a restriction that would require holding 60 certification courses between now and May. The memo also lays out the return of “in-water person-to-person lifeguard training/certifications when the city returns to Stage 3.”

Barton Springs Pool presents another deadline the division is up against: Unlike other municipal pools, Barton Springs lifeguards are required to have an additional open water certification. Current lifeguards who hold this certification will see it begin to expire this month.

If the in-person training timeline continues to see delays, “the Aquatic Division may be forced to cease or limit the operation of Barton Springs Pool.”

Looking forward, the division says it plans to “monitor the local characteristic of the Covid-19 virus and work closely with local health officials to ensure the safety of our current and future staff members and to provide safe pool access to patrons.”

Unsurprisingly, the pandemic has also interfered with staffing in the parks department, especially behind the scenes. The memo states that, “PARD is expeditiously working to fill vacant mechanic positions” to complete a number of maintenance projects from the fall and winter, and though summer delays aren’t expected, they aren’t out of the realm of possibility. For the time being, the department says it’ll update the community with information about maintenance delays as needed.

This story has been corrected to reflect the fact that the city needs to hire 600 lifeguards, not 750.

Photo by Spawnzilla, CC BY-SA 4.0, via Wikimedia Commons.

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