2008-03-07 / Community

Lifeguard Chief: Punished For Speaking Out

Hopes For Fair Staffing, Testing This Summer
By Miriam Rosenberg

Janet Fash, the chief lifeguard for the Rockaway Beach station that covers Beach 96 to Beach 103 Streets, calls the understaffing on her beach last year retaliation by Parks for her being outspoken about how the agency trains its lifeguards. "I am hoping last year was an anomaly," said Fash.
The Department of Parks and Recreation has sent out a call for lifeguard applicants, who will patrol city beaches and pools this summer.

In the past, locals, including a number of Community Board 14 members, have charged the agency with cronyism and with running a testing program that favors friends and punishes those who are not insiders.

Janet Fash, the chief lifeguard for the Rockaway Beach "shack" that patrols Beach 96 to Beach 103 Streets, is one of those who blew the whistle on the agency. She believes that the Parks Department retaliated against her for going public during approximately the last two years about the way city lifeguard recruits are trained. She hopes last summer's problems are in the past.

"Last year, for the first time in my busy area, [Parks officials] said they were allocating only two lifeguards per [lifeguard] chair," said Fash, in an interview this past weekend. "Since I've been supervising there, there were three lifeguards allocated to each beach. "They [Parks] put the public at risk, as well as my lifeguards."

The Deputy Commissioner of the Department of Parks and Recreation, Liam Kavanagh, responded to Fash's concerns last summer when he spoke to The Wave about the two lifeguards per each of the six chairs Fash's area covered.

"State requirements are for 12 lifeguards at any time," explained Kavanagh. "I'm sure she has [more than enough] to allow for breaks."

Fash, however, told The Wave that traditionally her beach has never gone by the minimal standards referred to by Kavanagh, because of the number of non-swimmers who come there.

"Non-swimmers are people who are not familiar with the water and have a greater risk of drowning," said Fash, who has been working in Rockaway since 1979.

She explained that, with two lifeguards per chair, when one goes on a break she has to move someone away from another beach. With one guard in each chair, the third person is positioned in between and needs to keep an eye on both beaches.

"So, what was happening was the lifeguards were getting less breaks and they visually had to scan the water more," continued Fash.

She said that situations like that could tire the lifeguards and create possibilities for more mistakes.

Fash, who called it her biggest fear, recounted an incident that occurred last Labor Day weekend.

She said a man began shouting about his missing daughter while her lifeguards were in the middle of another rescue.

Although a search found the child wandering on the shoreline, Fash explained she had no way to be sure the girl wasn't in the water.

When asked what might have happened if she had more manpower Fash responded, "we might have seen her walking along the shoreline."

"We didn't give the public the same amount of coverage that we normally do because Parks decided, on their own [and] without input from me, the chief lifeguard, how many lifeguards I should have on a regular basis. They changed it."

Fash also talked about some of the standards used by the city to choose lifeguards. A comparison by The Wave showed that the city does not have the same high standards as some of the state regions.

The city requires a candidate to swim 440 yards in seven minutes to be qualified to work at a pool, and in six minutes and 40 seconds to be assigned to a beach. Those who wish to work on a beach must also complete a 330-yard ocean swim.

Applicants for lifeguard positions in Long Island state parks have a much stricter certification process.

They must swim three laps in 75 seconds or less to continue the test; do a 350 to 400 yard swim in open water, followed by a run/swim/run course to continue, with any stops causing disqualification; a 1200 yard beach run in six minutes or less to continue, and a 33 yard swim, followed by a 33 yard cross chest carry of a mannequin in 85 seconds or less.

Fash said that with Community Board 14's involvement last year, especially that of Dan Mundy, things should change "if Parks opens their eyes and ears and maybe meets and follows [the board's recommendations]."

"I am hoping last year was an anomaly, and that it won't happen again," said Fash.

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