That shortage grew during the pandemic when pools and beaches were closed and lifeguards found work elsewhere.
In Galveston, Texas, there are 115 lifeguards on staff, according to the Island Beach Patrol. That number would ideally be closer to 155, the group said, but there isn't enough interest in the job – and there hasn't been for the past few years.
"We’re experiencing a critical national lifeguard shortage, with over 309,000 parks and pools," said Wyatt Werneth, a spokesperson for the American Lifeguard Association. "Over half of them will see closures or reduction in hours."
Charlie Pride said he enjoys a day on the beach with his family, but he’s been hesitant to let his daughter, Cameron, into the water because he’s seen fewer lifeguards on duty.
"In South Carolina where we usually vacation, there’s not a lifeguard. So, just having one here is very nice. I definitely think they need to find the people to fill these positions, because it keeps people who enjoy the beach, safe," Pride said.
A report from the U.S. Consumer Product Safety Commission showed nonfatal drowning injuries that were pool and spa related spiked 17% from 2020 to 2021 for children under 15 years old, and experts say it’s worse for beaches.
Peter Davis, chief of Galveston Island Beach Patrol, said most of the team's certifications come through the United States Lifesaving Association.
"Their minimum requirements are considerably higher than pools or water parks. It’s hard for just a normal, decent athlete who doesn’t have a competitive swimming background," Davis said.
Davis added a seasonal schedule that only pays during warmer months, the risks of the job and a lifeguard's responsibility for saving someone else’s life play factors in the staffing shortage.
Though Galveston beaches and pools are not fully staffed, there are enough staff on mobile patrol in trucks and guards in towers to stay open – thanks to new recruiting methods.
"The reason for that is we started relying on J-1 visa holders. And so, we have a group that comes up every year from Colombia, and other countries too, but that’s the main source," Davis said, adding that the method does have restrictions.
The visa holders can only work five months out of the year, so to supplement the remaining months, Davis said lifeguard academies have been added, but attendance is still low.
"Nationally, for all kinds of life-saving positions, whether it’s beach, pool, lake, water park – I think we’re all trying to think out of the box and think how do we make this work? And money is part of the equation but, it’s not the only thing we’re talking about. Because you could pay them $100 an hour and we still may not get what we need because we can’t find the qualified people," Davis said.
Davis and the American Lifeguard Association recommend checking your local beach or pool website to make sure they are fully staffed with lifeguards before heading out for fun.
They also recommend avoiding swimming in any areas where a guard isn’t actively watching.