2007-11-16 / Front Page

Locals: More Lifeguards, Longer Beach Hours

By Nicholas Briano

Dozens of Rockaway residents with a wide range of opinions and criticisms packed to capacity a City Council hearing room on Tuesday to have their say before a Parks and Recreation Committee oversight hearing on the citywide lifeguard program, an issue that has been a contentious one for locals for the past two years.

The public hearing, held across the street from City Hall at 250 Broadway, was dedicated to taking a look at the lifeguard hiring, testing and placement program and to suggest ways for the agency to improve their lifeguard force and to make it more transparent and equitable.

Rockaway residents know the topic all too well, according to many local activists, who have been battling with the Parks Department on issues ranging from longer beach hours, to the lifeguard training process.

First Deputy Commissioner Liam Kavanagh of the Department of Parks and Recreation was on hand to testify that his agency believes the lifeguard program is great and has been very successful over the past few years.

Kavanagh reported that there were 1,092 lifeguards on duty last summer, a record number that surpassed the record set the previous year.

Therefore, he pointed out, recruitment would seem to be on the rise; however, Rockaway activists believe there are flaws in the program that range well beyond the recruitment program.

Jonathan Gaska, District Manager of Community Board 14 for the past 18 years, testified to the city council committee about the lack of response by the parks department to six separate letters stating concerns regarding the lifeguard shortage and testing regimen.

"As of the date of this hearing we have not heard one response, not one," Gaska said. "In my 20 years in government, I have never seen such a lack of respect," he concluded, receiving a loud round of applause from the room full of Rockaway natives.

One of the main issues that Gaska addressed with the Department of Parks and Recreation was the use of part-time lifeguards, which would enable beaches to be fully staffed all season and stay open later.

Right now, according to Kavanagh, many beaches are closed in early June because most lifeguards are still attending school, and in late August, when many return to college. However, the only excuse The Department of Parks and Recreation can give for not extending the hours is the simple lack of lifeguards available to work until 8 o'clock at night, something that may be cured with part-time lifeguard shifts, many community officials believe.

City Councilwoman, Helen D. Foster, Chair of the Committee, asked Kavanagh if he has talked with beachfront communities, like Rockaway, about the thought of local residents filling the void of lifeguards early and late in the season and during proposed extended hours.

"Uh… no," Kavanagh simply replied back.

Kavanagh was then further asked by Foster if he would ever consider it.

"My understanding is that years ago there were part-time lifeguards employed by the city for the beaches and there were problems with attendance and their commitment to the job, and it became difficult managing the beach operation. It has not been used in more than 20 years," Kavanagh said.

Councilman Joseph P. Addabbo Jr., a member of the City Council Parks Committee, was on hand and also confronted Kavanagh about the same issue. According to Kavanagh, the new city lifeguard contract is in negotiation right now, and under the current contract, part-time lifeguards are not permitted to work city beaches.

Addabbo wants the new contract modified to include the addition of part-time lifeguards and longer beach hours. According to Addabbo, this is something Rockaway residents long for; a chance to come home after work at 5 or 6 o'clock and still be able to go out and enjoy their neighborhood beach.

Kavanagh still insists, however, that the Department of Parks and Recreation would not want to take that route, due to the experiences they had with part-time lifeguards over 20 years ago.

"We would prefer to hire 1,200 fulltime lifeguards to work the full season," Kavanagh said.

Addabbo, however, pointed out that part-time help would still be needed for early and late in the season, when there is usually a shortage, as well as late in the day in order to extend beach hours, no matter how many full-time lifeguards the city hires.

"That is something that was raised last spring when the Mayor visited Rockaway and he did ask us to look into it," Kavanagh said in response to keeping the beaches open late. "However it is predicated to a large extent on the number of lifeguards to allow for later hours."

Addabbo vowed to follow up with the status of the contract modifications. He then turned to the lifeguard testing issues involving resident claims of verbal abuse and flawed testing that prevent many Rockaway students from becoming lifeguards.

Kavanagh says that he knows of no verbal abuse or harassment in the lifeguard testing program, and urges anyone that experiences issues of abuse to report it to the Parks Department. Kavanagh also mentioned that the clock issue has been resolved and a publicly visible clock is now present at the testing, so all participants can see their swim times.

However, several Rockaway lifeguards testified against the Parks Department and supported the community's claims of faulty testing and training. Janet Fash, Chief Lifeguard and public school teacher in Rockaway, has been a lifeguard for more than 28 years and says she knows first-hand about the alleged mismanagement and corruption of the lifeguard program.

In impressive testimony, Fash used her time effectively to uncover and explain how the lifeguard program is in desperate need of a major overhaul, and suggested things from a junior lifeguard program to independent monitors for the flawed final testing sessions, which have turned away many Rockaway students from even attempting to complete the Parks Department training program.

"The testing of candidates is corrupt, and the easiest solution is an independent monitor," Fash said. "The city presently trains and tests the candidates in the same environment, and that requires honesty and integrity; presently the city is lacking both," she said.

Rockaway was well-represented at the hearing. Fash was just one of nearly 20 people who testified against the Department of Parks about lifeguard issues important to the community. Nearly everyone had the same type of suggestions and criticism. Other notable residents who testified were Dan Mundy, Community Board 14 Parks Committee Chairman, Jeanne DuPont of Rockaway Waterfront Alliance, Hank Iori, retired educator, who ran a school district-based training program last winter, and Donna Larkin, Vice President of Queens Civic Congress, to name just a few. Councilman Addabbo applauded the community's efforts later that evening at the Community Board 14 monthly meeting at the Knights of Columbus Hall.

"Based on what was given as testimony, there are going to be certain things that will be worked on," Addabbo said. "Longer beach hours, part-time lifeguards, we believe can be worked out for summer 2008, but the people who turned out today do make a difference and I thank you," he added.

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