Will the beaches be safe this summer?

Jake Fairbanks

As we approach the summer of 2022, the numbers of attendees of the Northeast Florida beaches are steadily rising, coming off an unsteady two summers from the impact of COVID-19. The shark attack capital of the world, Florida, is also seeing a descending number of new employees at your local Ocean Rescue agencies. In March of 2020, we’ve witnessed the closing of Duval county beaches in an effort to prevent the spread of the Corona Virus and practice social distancing. Understandably, all Ocean Rescue agencies had to cancel or significantly limit their operations. Tyler Lead, a local beach rental employee stated, “I trained for about 2 to 3 weeks and was bummed to be informed that we wouldn’t be returning due to Covid-19. I had a different job opportunity the following year that paid far better which turned me away from the lifeguard job, although it would have been a good experience.”

We turned to the veteran employees that have been working our beaches years before the 2019 COVID-19 to get their opinion on the shocking low numbers of new employees. A long time North Florida Ocean Rescue employee stated, “There are less guards due to the Corona Virus locking out the last 2 years, and its been difficult getting recruitment to the beaches where our demographic of new employees is directed toward high school students. A lot of companies and jobs have raised their base pay and that could play a factor. With pay being so competitive, they may not want to sit on the beach all day when they can work an easy shift at the grocery store.” While the average base pay of lifeguards in Jacksonville sits at $13.67 an hour, this is becoming less competitive in today’s hot job market combined with recent inflation. Another Ocean Rescue employee stated, “inflation is impacting the number of guards applying to these jobs. The price of everything is going up and lifeguarding pay it’s not sufficient to make a living for most people. It is sad to see and its just a matter of time before wages increase or prices become stagnant.”

While Florida holds a reputation for dangerous currents and extreme summer beach crowds, it raises the question of whether or not these Ocean Rescue jobs should be recognized by the city with more importance. Another Ocean Rescue veteran stated, “I think it always has been an issue. The position isn’t recognized with as much importance, people do realize lifeguards save lives and are needed at beaches, but the big picture is we are not recognized at that EMS level, which we should be. I think if we did get that recognition, it would be play a huge factor in getting more people out here, receive better funding and better pay for our officers of the Beaches.”

Despite the low number of new employees, Northeast Florida lifeguard agencies are continuing to train and prepare during the month of May for what’s expected to be the busiest summer since 2019.