No lifeguard on duty.
That swim-at-your-own-risk warning sign commonly hanging at certain Long Island beaches and pools could be seen more often than usual this summer. With the area facing a lifeguard shortage, summer locales from beaches and summer camps to community pools and country clubs are looking to hire candidates qualified to make a professional water rescue.
The application process to become a lifeguard is unlike that of any other summer job. And the required qualifications include more than simply being able to swim well, as newly-hired lifeguards assume the responsibility of taking lives into their hands.
"There's nothing like going home at the end of the day knowing that, because of your action and your crew's actions, other people went home too," Cary Epstein, the first vice president of the Jones Beach Lifeguard Corp. says.
The certification process to become a lifeguard varies depending on location.
The first step, whether in hopes of becoming an ocean or stillwater lifeguard in either Nassau County or Suffolk County, is to take a lifeguard training class from American Aquatics and Safety Training or any other New York State Department of Health approved organization.
The training courses, and age requirements for each, depend on the type of waters a lifeguard-to-be intends on monitoring. The testing requirements to become a pool lifeguard are not quite as intensive as that of the test for beach lifeguarding.
At Lifeguard Training NY, which has locations in both Nassau and Suffolk, the two-day crash course to become a pool lifeguard includes six hours of online training, two 10-hour days at the facility’s pool, completion of the required CPR, AED and First Aid certification and a written test.
To participate in the class, students first must be able to complete a 300-yard swim using rhythmic breathing without stopping, tread water for two minutes without the use of hands, retrieve a 10-pound brick and return it to the shallow end of the pool in under one minute and 40 seconds, and other requirements.
"The hardest part that we are finding now for people in the lifeguarding class are people who cannot pass the prerequisites. Due to COVID, a lot of people are still out of shape," says Motti Eliyahu, owner of Lifeguard Training NY in Valley Stream. "Once the student passes the lifeguard class, we help them get a job."
Blue Ocean Aquatics has similar precourses for its training and certification, which includes different water safety aspects, preventions, and the handling of distressed swimmers, drowning victims and spinal victims.
"There’s a baseline where they demonstrate competency in the water and show some semblance of good stamina required to be an effective lifeguard," Jeremy Cohen, the aquatics manager at Blue Ocean Aquatics, says. "People who can do that, which is the majority, are almost always able to compete the skills we demonstrate with rescues and assists."
Heading to the beach
To work at a beach, Eliyahu says students must add a waterfront lifeguard certification, a prerequisite for which includes a 550-yard swim.
During the 26-hour lifeguard course — with 20 hours in person and six hours online — students are taught everything from how to make professional rescues while handling passive drownings when the victim is unconscious, to how to tend to victims with spinal injuries in shallow and deep waters. The class also includes CPR/AED and First Aid.
Once students become CPR/AED, First Aid and lifeguard certified, they are permitted to take their posts at the pool or beach at a majority of Suffolk County facilities.
"In Suffolk, as long as you complete a lifeguard certification class, you’re all set and can work the next day," Eliyahu says.
In Nassau, after successfully completing the certification through a state department of health approved organization, students must pass the Nassau County Lifeguard Certification exam that is divided into three grades — Grade I: swimming pools, Grade II: calm water bathing beaches and Grade III: ocean bathing beaches.
Students, who must be 16 and older, need to undergo a medical examination prior to testing, with vision and hearing requirements varying by grade.
Per the Nassau County website, the performance test for Grade I and preliminary needs for Grade II and III includes a freestyle swim minimum speed test of 50 yards in 35 seconds or less, an endurance swim of 200 yards in under 3:45, and a written test that requires a passing grade of 80%, among other requirements. The Grade II and III tests increase in difficulty.
Getting the coveted job
A Long Island lifeguard getting a job at Jones Beach is like a performer making it to Broadway. It’s where many aspire to be.
Being a highly coveted job, and a New York State Park, Jones Beach has its own lifeguard hiring process and in-house training program.
The Jones Beach Lifeguard Corp. is responsible for lifeguard staffing for all Long Island state parks in the New York State system. In addition to the two flagship oceanfront facilities of Jones Beach and Robert Moses, that includes Sunken Meadow State Park in Kings Park, Heckscher State Park in East Islip, Wildwood State Park in Wading River, Orient Beach State Park in Orient, Hither Hills State Park in Montauk and Montauk Downs State Park.
To be eligible for employment at these facilities, prospective lifeguards aged 17 and older must take the Jones Beach Lifeguard Test. The test typically consists of four components — though this year’s test completed on June 18 was reduced to two due to COVID-19 restrictions.
The components include a 400-meter ocean swim, a 3/4 mile run with a six-minute limit, a 100-yard pool swim with a limit of 1:15, and a 50-yard pool swim with a full-speed 25-yard approach to a mannequin that the prospective lifeguard must cross check carry back to the opposite side of the pool. The top-ranked lifeguards are then hired to fill the open positions.
Then begins 40 hours of rookie training, with each student trained to be an ocean lifeguard regardless of which state park, pool or stillwater facility they ultimately land.
At the training, students are taught all forms of rescue, as well as beach operations, boat and kayak use and other skills required for lifeguarding at Jones Beach.
"Sometimes it takes a year or two or three for stillwater guards to make it to the ocean," Epstein says. "It’s where everyone wants to go and where everybody wants to be, but it’s at those beautiful stillwater locations where lifeguards learn and gain experience."
Epstein says it’s not always the fastest swimmer and runner who makes the best lifeguard. It’s a job that also demands strong decision-making skills, work ethic and leadership in order to recognize the need for a rescue and execute under extreme conditions.
"We are diving into danger and going to get people when others are running in the opposite direction, especially when the water is hairy, especially when the surf is big," Epstein says. "It's what we do. We love it."