Starting in 2023, summer lifeguards who patrol Evanston’s beaches will operate under the purview of the Evanston Fire Department, the RoundTable has learned.
There is a proposed increase in the seasonal lifeguard budget, that if passed by the City Council, would allow the Fire Department to hire a supervisor who would directly oversee the lifeguard program and report to the fire chief, at a salary and benefits of $107,000.
The budget proposal would also allow the city to hire from 90 to 100 guards, with an increase in base pay to at least $20 an hour.
The program transition to the Fire Department will mean the city can offer more advanced employment opportunities for veteran lifeguards to become firefighters and police officers. Plus, the Parks and Recreation team is hoping that the change will help the city recruit more lifeguards in the coming years by offering people the chance to add “EFD lifeguard” to their resumes.
For the last six weeks, the RoundTable has been looking into the past summer at Evanston’s beaches — the first after allegations of rampant sexual harassment, abuse and discrimination among lakefront workers rocked the Evanston community in 2021.
The scandal resulted in a complete overhaul of the leadership in the Parks and Recreation Department, with Audrey Thompson taking the reins first as interim and then permanent department director, Michael Callahan becoming assistant director and Tim Carter lakefront manager.
A month ago, the RoundTable sat down with the trio, who oversaw the seasonal lifeguard program, training and supervising employees throughout the summer, a role the Parks and Recreation Department has held for years.
The intent of that meeting was to discuss the 2022 summer, changes in the lifeguard program and understaffing due to hiring issues that caused the beaches to close early, as well as how the department would move forward.
None of the three leaders mentioned that they were implementing a program switch to the Evanston Fire Department.
But on Wednesday, while analyzing the city’s newly proposed 2023 budget, the RoundTable came across the first bullet point under the heading “Issues Affecting 2023 Budget” on page 175 of the 500-page document: “Increase pay rate for lifeguards who will be managed by the Evanston Fire Department.”
In a phone conversation with the RoundTable on Friday, Oct. 14, Evanston City Manager Luke Stowe said he and his leadership team were planning on announcing the lifeguard program transition at this coming Monday’s Council meeting. Thompson’s department, she told the RoundTable, wants to focus more on the city’s lakefront programming and events, while the Fire Department can take over the public safety side of the program with lifeguards.
“Lifesaving is the sole responsibility of the Fire Department. It’s what they do 365 days a year,” Thompson said. “Since they already have a unit that is specific to water, this is going to add a layer of professionalism to our lifeguards that no other city has.”
“We won’t ever not work with the Fire Department,” she said. “This will be a collaboration from here on out. It has to be a marriage of sorts, so this definitely is not ‘give them to the Fire Department.’ This is more of a deeper commitment to what we want to show people on the lakefront.”
Thompson also described this shift as “a workforce development strategy” to develop a stronger base of lifeguards each summer. This past season, 72 lifeguards worked at Evanston’s beaches, but that number was not enough to keep all beaches open for the entire summer. Moving forward, the city hopes to hire between 90 and 100 lifeguards, Carter said.
Additionally, Thompson said she wants her team to focus more on developing opportunities for young people on the lakefront, like sports tournaments, sandcastle competitions and other events.
2023 Budget shifts
In the 2023 proposed budget, which is still in process and is not likely to receive final approval from City Council for weeks, the city moved about $300,000 from Parks and Recreation to the Fire Department to account for this change.
Usually, summer lifeguards cost Evanston about $200,000, according to a budget request memo filed with the city, but that cost is going up to increase lifeguard pay from $16 an hour to at least $20 an hour.
Meanwhile, the Parks and Recreation Department is also interviewing candidates for the new position of Outdoor Recreation Coordinator, who will help plan some of the new programming that Thompson described.
“The first thing is programming: Increasing our programming down at the lakefront to get more diversity down there, getting more young children at the lakefront, so they get more familiar with the lake and eventually, they want to become a lifeguard,” Carter said. “Let’s get those kids down there while they’re 8, 9, 10, 11, 12 and show them the lakefront. So there’s been a lot of outreach to our schools this year.”
Evanston resident Mary Rosinski, who serves on the Parks and Recreation subcommittee that met Thursday night, said she thought these changes would bring a lot more excitement and energy to the lakefront in the summer.
“It’s exciting, it’s moving forward, it’s bringing the kids to a higher professional level,” Rosinski said. “It’s unique. It’s a story.”