2008-06-20 / Top Stories

Where Have All The Lifeguards Gone?

By Nicholas Briano

Things could get worse before they get better at Beach 97 Street where red flags, symbolizing the surrounding beach area is closed, are popping up too often for area residents, who wish to enjoy their local waterfront.
Rockaway residents are singing a familiar tune this summer beach season, as they often find themselves scrambling from beach to beach, searching for one with a lifeguard, which would allow them to finally hit the waves.

One chief lifeguard, however, thinks she knows why so few of Rockaway's beaches are supervised by lifeguards.

Janet Fash, chief lifeguard at the Beach 97 Street lifeguard shack, is an outspoken critic of the Department of Parks and Recreation, the agency that runs the beach and its lifeguards.

She believes that her past whistle blowing comments regarding the management of the lifeguards in Rockaway may be coming back to haunt her crew.

Last November, Fash spoke out at a city council public hearing about the numerous problems of favoritism, lack of proper management, and lifeguard placement.

Now, she says, her lifeguards are being treated unfairly and she does not have enough staff to guard the beaches from Beach 97 to Beach 102 Street as a result of her public testimony.

She urges Rockaway residents to call 311 and log a complaint about the lifeguard shortage along Rockaway's beaches.

"Please offer up support to the Beach 97 Street lifeguards," she said in a written statement this week.

"They are being punished due to my activism. Prior to my outspokenness the lifeguards had three assigned per chair. This summer as well as last the lifeguards are making rescues and do not have enough lifeguards assigned to the shack to effectively cover the beaches," she added.

She is hoping the public will get on her side and demand change.

"The Beach 97 Street lifeguards are being extremely undermanned from Beach 96 Street to Beach 102 Street again. Last summer they undermanned the area and they are doing it again."

Some locals agree and are simply fed up with the lack of proper manage- ment displayed by the New York City Department of Parks and Recreation. They wonder when things will really change.

Community Board 14 District Manager Jonathan Gaska and CB14 Parks Committee Chairperson Dan Mundy have requested an in-person meeting with Department of Parks and Recreation Commissioner Adriene Benepe sometime in July, although details have not been confirmed.

"We have a lot of red flags," Mundy said. The flags symbolize that section of beach is closed. "We are having trouble staffing the beaches, even on the weekends."

But, it is not so much the numbers about which Mundy is concerned. It is the treatment and lack of support the Beach 97 Street lifeguards are receiving.

"It is one of the most dangerous sections of beach," he said. "The storms this past year have reconfigured the beach and made it more conducive to rip tides."

Mundy continued to say that it is a safety issue for both the lifeguards and swimmers.

"They could only do so much," he said. "I think it is a direct retaliation against Fash for speaking out. Their intimidation is subtle, but it is there."

As a result, Mundy says, the lifeguards on the beaches are forced to work continuously without breaks or lunch. Sometime last weekend, he continued, a lifeguard was so overwhelmed by the enormous number of people on the beach that the lifeguard walked off the job in anxiety and frustration.

Lifeguards on the beach had no comments for The Wave, but each chair had either one or two lifeguards present, below the average of three or four on most other beaches.

Parks have often said that beaches are understaffed early in the summer months before school is officially out. However, Mundy says that is still no excuse for what is happening.

"There are not enough lifeguards on the weekend either. There is no excuse for that because kids are not in school," he said.

Mundy and Community Board 14 are hoping that a face to face meeting with Commissioner Benepe will prompt him to acknowledge that there is a dangerous situation in Rockaway and that it is primarily the result of spite and retaliation against Fash, the entire Rockaway community, and anyone who speaks out against the lack of proper lifeguard management.

Hank Iori, Community Board 14 member and community activist, has been energetically lobbying for change within the lifeguard ranks for many years.

He also feels that the Department of Parks and Recreation is punishing Fash for criticisms about the lifeguard program.

"[Fash] has a good grasp of what has to be done," he said. "But they are doing whatever they can to give her a hard time, and she has not gotten a full compliment of lifeguards this year."

Iori feels things are getting worse instead of better.

"There are definitely more red flags on the beaches than last year," he said. "Benepe continues to ignore the community. There is no harm in listening."

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