Evanston’s beach season is winding down, with swimming at the city’s two remaining beaches, Clark and Lee streets, to close Sept. 5.

But officials are already taking steps to head off a repeat of the lifeguard shortage that led to the early closing of one beach this year – including exploring a different certification system for candidates.

Audrey Thompson, the city’s Parks and Recreation Director, reviewed some of the steps officials could take in a brief report at the Parks and Recreation Board meeting on Aug. 18.

The department caught the public by surprise in June, announcing that Greenwood Beach would be closed for the remainder of the 2022 season to ensure adequate staffing and public safety at the city’s five other swimming beaches.

Officials said they were taking the step amid a nationwide lifeguard shortage that was affecting a number of other swimming venues in the Chicago area.

At the time, Thompson estimated that the city would need at least 12 lifeguards to keep Greenwood Beach open. Officials said they picked that beach for closure based on figures that showed it was used less than the others.

The city’s Aug. 4 announcement that swimming would be restricted to Clark Street and Lee Street beaches, was also due to a staff shortage, with many lifeguards returning to school.

But the city has made similar calls in previous years for the same reason, Thompson noted.

Policy and procedures also under review

Thompson told board members that staff are exploring changes to a number of policies and procedures ahead of next season. One of these might be a change in the certification the city uses.

In the past, Evanston has focused on retaining and recruiting lifeguards meeting the rigorous standards of the United States Lifesaving Association (USLA) for lifeguards and other open-water rescuers.

“And so … while we are the premier lakefront and no one else has that certification,” Thompson told the Board, “that’s great but it does not allow us to use other lifeguards from the YWCA, the YMCA, any of our nursing homes that have indoor pools – we are unable to borrow from those lifeguards as well.

“We are already meeting, just to figure out how we will work to include more of those lifeguards if we change our certification … but also add some of the standards from the USLA.”

Along with that, the city could beef up training to fill in any gaps, she said.

When asked about the standards from serving as a lifeguard at a senior center pool versus at the lake, Thompson said: “It is different.” However, in the swim test using the USLA standards, she noted, “we started with over 90 lifeguards and we lost over 20.”

She pointed out that there are other lakefronts in the area not using the USLA certification. “So the goal is to work with those other organizations [with lifeguards] and even say to them we will train them along with our lifeguards…”

“But it’s not just that, it’s also our recruitment, so we aren’t recruiting until very late,” said Thompson, who was named to the director position shortly before the beach season.

She said staff’s goal, which includes reaching out to more Black and Brown students at Evanston Township High School, “is to make it appealing to people to come to the lakefront.”

She maintained that the city’s lifeguard pay compares favorably with that of other communities. “Should we pay them more? Absolutely,” she said.

She said there are other things the city is looking at. “I will definitely make sure you are all aware of it,’” she said, because “recruiting has already started.”

Bob Seidenberg

Bob Seidenberg is an award-winning reporter covering issues in Evanston for more than 30 years. He is a graduate of the Northwestern University Medill School of Journalism.

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  1. I regularly see a gaggle of lifeguards, usually at the entrance of our beaches, chatting and enjoying themselves. The single time when I asked for a cold pack, having been accidentally bumped in the mouth and bleeding slightly, the response was a bit of confusion and no available supplies. I don’t see how we’re effectively utilizing current staff, let alone why in the world we need more.

  2. The beaches are one of the city’s most valuable assets, as well as one of our most widely-used amenities. It is very good to hear that the city is beefing up recruiting efforts, so that an avoidable shortage of lifeguards does not become unavoidable next year. Recruit early and pay more. Most importantly, notify residents if there are budgetary issues so that private efforts can be stepped up. An Evanston lifeguard fundraising event would certainly have helped.