A lifeguard chair sits at a pool.
Public pools in Bangor and Brewer (shown) are struggling to find enough lifeguards as they prepare to open for the summer. Credit: Linda Coan O'Kresik / BDN

Public pools in Bangor and Brewer are struggling to find enough lifeguards as they prepare to open for the summer, reflecting a statewide and national lifeguard shortage

While aquatic directors report they have as few as half the lifeguards they need to be fully staffed, it doesn’t mean that fewer people are getting certified as lifeguards. It’s just that not enough are applying to work at the area’s public pools or the Bangor Region YMCA. In Brewer, for instance, that means the municipal pool will be closed on weekends.

Bangor Parks and Recreation Director Tracy Willette has about 15 lifeguards to work at the city’s two pools this summer, but needs 25 to 30 to be considered fully staffed.

At the city’s Dakin Pool, three guards usually monitor the pool and one oversees the pool house.

Six guards monitor the Beth Pancoe Aquatic Center’s pool with an additional lifeguard supervising the top of the waterslides and another in the pool house.

The lack of guards won’t compromise safety, Willette said. It could simply mean changes to lifeguards’ rotation from post to post and the number of swimmers allowed at a time, he said.

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“We use patron numbers to adjust guard needs, so we can still safely open the facility,” he said. “We won’t open if we can’t do it safely.”

Willette said he doesn’t yet know if the staffing shortage will affect the municipal pools’ hours.

In Brewer, Parks and Recreation Director Michael Martin said he’ll have six or seven lifeguards when the municipal pool opens later this month but needs 10 for a full staff.

The pool will be closed on weekends due to the lack of lifeguards, Martin said. Previously, it was open from noon to 4 p.m. on Saturdays and Sundays.

Kids swim in a pool in Brewer.
Families play at the Brewer Municipal Pool on the first day of summer in 2018. Credit: Caitlin Rogers / BDN

With a full lifeguard complement, Martin said guards rotate to different areas of the facility, such as the bath house or ticket window, throughout their shift, allowing them to periodically get out of the sun, rehydrate and rest their eyes.

With a stretched crew, the rotation doesn’t happen as frequently, which can more easily lead to fatigue, Martin said.

“If they’re not getting a break and a chance to get out of the sun and rest their eyes, risk factors can go up,” he said.

With fewer lifeguards, if even one calls out of work, that reduces how many people can use the pool, Martin said.

When the pool has six lifeguards, its capacity is roughly 180 people. If only four are working, it drops to 125, according to Martin.

Both Willette and Martin said they don’t know any one reason why fewer people have applied to be lifeguards at public pools in recent years but suspect the drop may be due to the nature of the job. Lifeguarding requires an expensive certification course and doesn’t pay particularly well compared with other jobs young adults can get while placing the responsibility of keeping swimmers safe on guards’ shoulders.

Bangor Parks and Recreation reimburses lifeguards the cost of the Bangor YMCA’s $315 certification course if someone takes it, then works at a municipal pool. Martin said he has considered reimbursing lifeguards, but his department doesn’t currently.

A lifeguard oversees swimmers in a pool.
In this June 2016 file photo, Cassidy Quint, a second year life guard at the Brewer Municipal Pool, watches over the swimmers who turned out on opening day despite the storm clouds rolling in. Credit: Linda Coan O’Kresik / BDN

Shawn Rich, aquatics manager at the Bangor Region YMCA, said he has certified 31 people so far this year and is scheduled to certify another 15-17 this month.

“They’re getting certified, they’re just not applying,” Rich said. “I don’t know where they’re going, because they’re not here and they’re not at Bangor Parks and Rec either. It’s very confusing.”

Certifications are valid for two years, Rich said. Last year, 44 people took Rich’s lifeguard training course, and another 22 became certified in 2020.

The Bangor YMCA has 15 lifeguards for its two pools, according to Rich. The organization employed 25-30 before the pandemic.

The reduced staff, many of whom are high school students who aren’t available during school hours, means Rich is “daisy-chaining people’s availability together.”

“We don’t have a lot of flexibility at this point,” he said. “If someone were to call out today, I’d be a lifeguard.”

Rich said he’d like to find adult guards for the facility’s two pools for when high school students are in school to provide more stability. So far, Rich said he has managed to maintain the pools’ hours, though he doesn’t know how long that will last.

The Bangor YMCA requires one lifeguard for every 25 people in the pool, Rich said. If a 26th arrives, a second lifeguard is needed. Typically, two lifeguards oversee a pool, but a third is needed during free swim time.

The staff shortage has also bled into the YMCA’s swim lessons for children, which has seen enrollment skyrocket.

Rich said he’s aiming to teach 350 to 400 children this summer, dwarfing the roughly 130 who took swim classes in past summers. But the YMCA has only five to six instructors when Rich would like to have at least 12.

Kathleen O'Brien

Kathleen O'Brien is a reporter covering the Bangor area. Born and raised in Portland, she joined the Bangor Daily News in 2022 after working as a Bath-area reporter at The Times Record. She graduated from...