2013-08-16 / Columnists

Slice of Life

Lifeguard Confusion
By Beth Hanning

The New York City Parks Department definitely does not have a good reputation this past year. We have no boardwalk and many beaches are not opened for swimming. People who live on Beach 102nd Street have told me they cannot even put their big toe in the water without the Parks Department “police” speeding over on a three wheeler yelling at them to get out of the water.

My issue this year has been the lifeguards. During the heat wave my friends and I were asked multiple times by the lifeguards to put our umbrellas down. I am sure every Rockaway person knows that putting the umbrella in the sand is an effort and moving it in the heat wave was a big deal. One time we were asked after it had been up for over two hours. When we questioned why it took them two hours to ask us to bring the umbrella down, they responded that the tide had changed.

Now after having been asked to take down the umbrella we noticed that the lifeguard chair was very low. So low, in fact, (see picture) that I could rest my elbow on the foot rest. After noticing one chair, I started to walk the beach and noticed many of the chairs in the 116th Street Shack were all very low. However, when I walked “uptown” to the next shack I noticed regular height. When I asked the lifeguards from the 135th Street Shack about this they responded that their lieutenant did not want them to dig their chairs into the sand.

So I went back to my beach and told the lifeguards I was working on a piece and asked about the height of the chairs. The lifeguard on duty told me it had to be low so if he had to jump he would not hurt himself. He disagreed with me that the higher the chair the better the view. He also told me that my friends and I sit too close to his chair and that is why our umbrellas are in his way. I also asked him why some lieutenants do not allow the burying of the chair and he stated that the 135th lieutenant has all younger guards and they do what he tells them to do.

I then asked him if when lifeguards get hired, do they receive a manual of rules and regulations? He replied, “No.” It seems odd to me that a city job that pays very well does not have a list of rules to abide by daily.

I wanted this piece to run in last week’s edition but I wanted to give the multiple lieutenants and chiefs I contacted time to respond to my inquiries. I even emailed the press representative for the Parks Department, Zachary Feder, a list of questions and I never received an answer to my questions.

Here are the questions I was curious about:

Is there a regulation of how high the chair needs to be? We have seen chairs dug very deep and lifeguards are very low.

Does there always need to be a walker on the shore in collaboration with the guard sitting on the chair?

How many blocks are there from shack to shack? How many shacks are there in the Rockaways?

After passing the test, are there any drills that take place? (During the summer while on the job?)

What are the lieutenant's responsibilities? How often should he/she check on a chair?

When I emailed him to remind him of my inquiry he responded, “Sorry about the delay. Still working on answers and hope to have to you later today.” (Received Thursday 8/8). I cannot figure out why these questions stumped the press representative for the Parks Department in one of the largest agencies in the country.

As many of you know I am a longtime resident and respect the job the lifeguards do every day. I know it is a difficult job, but after speaking with many residents and some former lifeguards, many people are disappointed with the job many are doing this very busy summer.

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I respect your inquiries, and

I respect your inquiries, and frankly I'm shocked that there aren't more regulations in place--but I'm also kind of grateful. I really worry about adding more regulations on the beach (or enforcing existing ones). I prefer to allow the lifeguards/lieutenants to exercise some discretion in terms of how they run their shacks. The needs of each beach differ: We all know that the tides, breaks, the elevation, and most importantly, the swimmers on, say, B86 are radically different from those on B102, or B135. Conditions change not only from block to block, but from day to day. Those protecting the beaches need some flexibility in order to do their jobs well. I say let the people who do the job figure out how best to do the job. If a boss sees a compelling reason to dig a chair in on a specific beach, with a specific staff, let him do it. I'd much rather have such decisions made for each shack by a veteran lifeguard than to have sweeping rules sent down from the top of the parks department. I'd like for a lifeguard to be able to say "no boogie boards" on days when the currents are strong, but to allow them on days when conditions are mild. City agencies have been limiting or completely doing away with that kind of individual worker discretion for the length of this mayor's administration (ask any police officer or public school teacher, etc), and we're all worse off because of it. Ann Kirby-Payne


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