Pine Belt pools struggle to staff amid lifeguard shortage

HATTIESBURG, MS (WDAM) - At one time lifeguarding was one of the coolest summer jobs, but for about 10 years now, across the Pine Belt the number of people becoming lifeguards has been on the decline.

Hattiesburg Parks and Recreation General Manager Ann Jones has been struggling for years to staff the requisite three lifeguards for each of the city's three public pools.

"Case in this pointP: we were only able to open our pools at full capacity midway through the swim season for us because we were so short on lifeguards," said Jones.

There have always been obstacles to recruiting lifeguards; the swim test to become certified is physically rigorous and can cost a couple of hundred dollars, and the job of guarding lives has always been a high-pressure position that not everyone may want. But, despite those things, for years it was a premium summer gig for teenagers especially. So what's changed?

I think this generation that's in that 17 or the traditional lifeguard age, they just they don't have those swim skills," says Jones.

Jessica Barton runs lifeguard certification courses at the University of Southern Mississippi and  says, while there's been interest this year, many who have come in to get certified are failing the swimming portion of the test.

"It used to be, you would have to in order to even graduate from high school you would have to pass a swimming test or at least take a swimming course if you were in college and that's no longer required," says Barton.

"Obesity could play a part in that too," says Jones. "You have to swim 300 yards to pass the course."

The number of registered lifeguards in mississippi has been decreasing for years and the concern now is whether that number will keep sinking and, if it does, will that inevitably mean more drownings?

"Hopefully not, and that's one reason that it's so important that we never reduce our lifeguard to bather ratio," said Jones.

"I think that folks will either be forced to shut their doors or they'll be forced to post signs that say swim at your own risk or no lifeguard on duty which does have a higher potential or increase of potential drowning if there's no one there to guard their lives," said Barton.

Jones says the city will never under staff a pool, but instead would close them or limit access - an option that, in these stifling summer months, seems almost unthinkable to many in the community.