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As Lifeguards Change Their Image, Fewer Sign Up for Duty

August 13, 1990

BOSTON (AP) _ Time was, being a lifeguard was a dream job: sitting atop a white tower, a bronzed Adonis for the bikini-clad teen-age girls to admire.

These days, it’s hard to find people interested in the job.

Because of chronically low wages and costly and more rigorous certification lessons, potential candidates, especially in the Northeast, are drawn to easier, better paying jobs - like flipping burgers in fast-food restaurants.

Some beaches and pools in New England and the mid-Atlantic states have closed for lack of lifeguards, according to the U.S. Lifesaving Association.

″Not too long ago we had waiting lists of applicants,″ said Tim Hall, lifeguard coordinator for the Maine Bureau of Parks and Recreation.

″Now we have to go out and recruit them. The booming economy of the late ’80s made summer jobs more available to college students. Work as chambermaids, waitresses and construction workers paid more.″

Those who do sign up, from California to Florida, are frequently much younger than in years past and not always as conscientious, longtime lifeguards said.

″Anyone can put on an orange suit but these young guys don’t know what to look for,″ said Rian Wilkinson, a veteran lifeguard from Newport, R.I. ″They just sit on the stands and there aren’t any older guys around to keep them from goofing off.″

Part of the shortage stems from tougher and more expensive training. In 1982, the Red Cross introduced a national lifeguard certification program to replace the simpler lifesaving courses designed for the general public.

″Now kids have to pay $75 or $80 for certification when it used to be free, and so they’d rather work somewhere else,″ said Joe Pecoraro, president of the U.S. Lifeguard Association and general supervisor of beaches and pools for Chicago.

″It used to a be a glamour position,″ said Donald Cotter, recreation director in Foxboro, who began recruiting lifeguards in January and did not sign up his last one until a week before the season opened. ″Young kids just don’t want to do the training.″

Many in the profession say the tougher requirements are part of a plan to ensure that lifeguards are better trained and more professional.

″What we call the ‘beach mystique’ is still there,″ said Hall. ″But the lifeguard’s image has basically changed and that’s good. We’re not looking for people who want to smear suntan lotion on their bodies and look for women. We’re looking for people who are interested in someday being policemen, firemen, paramedics - who’ll see lifeguarding as an emergency service provider.″

John Crisp, 42, assistant chief for lifeguards in the Daytona Beach, Fla., area, said Volusia County takes lifeguards at 16 in the hope they ″stick with us through high school and college and turn into a real professional.″

″When I first came on here in 1972, it was party time, something to do to kill a few years,″ said Crisp. ″But now we’re trying for a more professional image.″

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