Lifeguard shortage is no small thing

Published 3:08 pm Wednesday, May 1, 2024

On today’s front page, you can read all about how one of Vicksburg’s most important annual programs is getting ready to kick off its 2024 season when the Vicksburg City Pool opens for lessons in June.

I say one of the most important programs because the city pool isn’t just a place for locals to go to beat the oppressive Mississippi heat – although it is a great place to do that; the city pool also hosts swimming lessons and I can’t stress the importance of being a strong swimmer enough.

As we were preparing the story for today’s edition, I told Vicksburg City Pool Director Sylvia Gurtowski that swimming programs are near and dear to my heart because swimming was a huge part of my life growing up. In fact, my first job was as a swim instructor and lifeguard at the city pool in the town where I grew up. And I did that job every summer until I graduated high school.

Email newsletter signup

Sign up for The Vicksburg Post's free newsletters

Check which newsletters you would like to receive
  • Vicksburg News: Sent daily at 5 am
  • Vicksburg Sports: Sent daily at 10 am
  • Vicksburg Living: Sent on 15th of each month

Over the years, I taught everything from beginning swimming lessons to eventually diving and the actual lifesaving course for new lifeguards. And let me tell you, if you think having qualified lifeguards at a city pool is any less important than having them at the beach, a lake, or any other body of water, you’d be wrong. You can drown in a mud puddle if circumstances allow. Any
body of water is incredibly dangerous, hence the need for, at the very least, basic swimming skills.

As we prepare to enter the summer months, I can’t suggest strongly enough that anyone who thinks they need to beef up their skills in the water enroll in lessons when registration begins May 15. Gurtowski and company have classes for all ages and all levels of swimmers.

And there is no shame in adults hopping in the water to learn to be better swimmers. I’ll never forget, as a teenager, teaching nighttime adult classes and having a one-on-one session with the very large, physically imposing gentleman who served as the warden at a local maximum security prison. He told me then that he saw danger every day of his life, and he knew how to handle those intense moments. He was well-trained for that kind of risk. But he recognized that he had simply never had the
opportunity to learn to become a strong swimmer and he knew the importance of having that skill should some unexpected
event take place. I was very impressed at his willingness to learn a life skill from some kid he had never met. That stuck with me.

And while Vicksburg’s City Pool is all set to provide swimming lessons this summer, Gurtowski said lifeguards are still needed. In fact, she said there has been a national shortage of lifeguards that has gotten progressively worse over the past 20-or-so years. That surprised me. Given, this was the late-1990s, but when I was sitting out in the sun all of those summers, being a lifeguard was something a lot of teenagers and college-aged students wanted to do. Gurtowski gave a lot of reasons why interest seems to have waned over the years, and it’s understandable. It’s not a job you can slack off on. As I mentioned before, it only
takes a moment and a small amount of water for tragedy to strike. But, that’s even more of a reason for anyone with the needed skills to reach out to our city pool.

I know we’re all busy, but I also know Vicksburg residents show up when they are needed in the community. I’ve already seen that over and over again in just the short time I’ve been here. And while being a lifeguard is a paying gig, it’s also a form of community service. Whether it is a child learning not to be afraid of the water, but to respect it, or an adult learning the same — or simply honing their aquatic skills a bit — swimming teachers and lifeguards make that process easier and safer.

How important is being a lifeguard? I’ll give you one last example. In high school, I swam competitively and even in the junior olympics a few times. So, clearly, our team knew its way around a pool. But, guess who was present at every single practice and
competition we ever took part in? Lifeguards. Accidents can happen to any level of swimmer in any body of water. But, utilizing the lessons our local pool offers, and providing help as a lifeguard if you are able, can go a long way toward preventing those accidents from becoming tragedies.

Blake Bell is the general manager and executive editor of The Vicksburg Post. He can be reached at