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Swim at your own risk

A lifeguard keeps watch on the water of New York City beaches in Coney Island.

TEXT OF STORY

Doug Krizner: Maybe you'll be heading to the beach, lake or a pool this weekend to cool off. Will there be a lifeguard on hand to keep you safe? If so, you're lucky, because there's actually a shortage of lifeguards in this country. Pat Loeb reports


Pat Loeb: It's a perfect day on San Diego's Mission Beach: Clear skies above and the water temperature is 73. Ali Templeton keeps her eyes fixed on waves full of swimmers.

Ali Templeton: Yeah I love it. Nerve-wracking, it was very stressful when I first started but it's fun, lotta fulfillment out of it

Templeton is spending a lot of time on duty, this year. San Diego is having trouble staffing its guard chairs. People unexpectedly dropped out of training after being hired.

Communities across the U. S. Report they're short of lifeguards, too. The Red Cross trains more lifeguards every year — this year it trained 200,000 — but demand keeps growing even faster, especially at water parks.

Chris Brewster is president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association. He says there's a simple economic remedy.

Chris Brewster: The pay, the benefits, the working conditions need to be attractive enough that you get the numbers of people that you need.

Brewster says lifeguarding often pays like other summer jobs but it's far more demanding. First of all, you have to be a strong swimmer. San Diego lifeguards have to swim 500 meters in 10 minutes, just to get an interview.

They undergo rigorous training. Then, Brewster says, comes the most daunting part: the responsibility of sitting in that chair.

Brewster: Let's say you're hired for the summer to scoop ice cream and you do a bad job, well the worst thing that happens is you drop a scoop of ice cream on the floor. If you're a lifeguard and you do a bad job, somebody dies.

Some pool and camp managers employ foreign students on summer work/study visas as lifeguards, but that pool may be drying up as the number of visas available goes down on Sept. 30.

San Diego lifeguard officials say they may start paying current lifeguards to recruit their friends. Nick Lerma is a marine safety lieutenant.

Nick Lerma: The more challenged we are, the more creative we have to get and the more we have to offer incentives.

Lerma says the pay is $16 an hour but, he says, the rewards go far beyond dollars and cents.

Lerma: To be able to hand somebody back their life and know full-well that they would have otherwise died is, you know, a powerful thing.

In San Diego, I'm Pat Loeb for Marketplace

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