After the February 2022 release of a devastating report about sexual misconduct and harassment at Evanston’s beaches and the complete overhaul of Parks and Recreation’s leadership, the summer of 2022 was about rebuilding the lifeguard program as well as rebuilding the city’s confidence in it. 

Playing in the sand on the South Boulevard Beach, Evanston Credit: Wendi Kromash

It was, by all accounts, a successful summer.

Chief Paul Polep of the Evanston Fire Department and Audrey Thompson, director of the Parks and Recreation Department, realized, after getting staff input, that there was much to be gained for Evanston residents if the life-saving responsibilities of water safety and rescue shifted to the EFD.

Parks and Recreation would focus on running the aquatics camp and activities that support the beaches. Each department would “own” their areas of expertise.

After many long meetings and lots of research, the shift was approved by City Manager Luke Stowe in September 2022, according to Tim Carter, recreation manager in Parks and Recreation. Looking back on it now, Carter said, “Why didn’t we do this sooner?” Polep concurs.

Collaboration between EFD and Parks and Recreation

Key personnel from the two departments have been meeting weekly to make the transition as seamless as possible. In interviews with Polep, Carter and Michael Callahan, assistant director of Parks and Recreation, the word “collaboration” was used frequently. As Callahan noted, “We have an opportunity to make the lakefront better. We asked ourselves, if we could improve things in an optimal format, what would that look like?”

Lifeguards will be overseen by a new position, field chief of special operations, reporting to Division Chief Matt Smith. Polep expects the job to be filled by early June.

Two other priorities were to upgrade radio communications so lifeguards can connect immediately to 911 in emergencies, and to bump up their pay, given the level of responsibility of the job. Both recommendations were approved by the city and will go into effect later this month when beaches reopen for swimming on Saturday, May 27.

Both departments are extremely excited to welcome the public back to Evanston’s beaches for swimming. 

Increased professionalism and Red Cross certification

All lifeguards hired will be seasonal employees of the EFD and certified by the American Red Cross. The previous certification from the United States Lifesaving Association included an open water rescue qualification. While USLA certification is prestigious, USLA trainers are difficult to find; there was nobody able to certify the lifeguards, according to Polep. 

“Moving to the Red Cross gave us the ability to train several of our surface water rescue team to an instructor level, who can now certify our incoming guards,” said Polep in an email.

The change in certification is not changing the skill level of the lifeguards. The fire department’s surface water rescue team will teach segments from the lifeguard academies, according to Polep. They also patrol on jet skis and have access to a 21-foot Boston Whaler boat, Marine 21.

“On top of being a Red Cross lifeguard … you’re gonna have to learn how to swim in Lake Michigan, you’re gonna have to know how to swim in certain types of swells and certain types of waters. That’s where our surface water rescue team has been trained,” said Polep, speaking about the lifeguard candidates.

Sexual harassment awareness and training will be a component of training for seasonal employees of both departments, as it was last year at Parks and Recreation. 

To add to the professionalism of these lifeguards, Polep sought input from returning lifeguards on uniforms that take into account style and weather conditions. Those suggestions were incorporated and the new gear should be available soon.

Accessible beaches

Another new area will be training to accommodate and possibly assist beachgoers who use wheelchairs. Mobi-Mats will be available at these beaches: Lighthouse Beach, Clark Street Beach, Greenwood Beach, Dempster Beach and Sailing Facility, Lee Street Beach and South Boulevard Beach. Each location also has accessible parking and accessible restrooms.

Wheelchair-friendly Mobi-Mats like this one are planned for six beaches. Credit: Richard Cahan

The city also purchased three beach wheelchairs (two adult-sized and one child-sized) for use at select beaches on a first-come, first-served basis. (Note, they are not flotation devices and cannot be rolled into the lake). They are free to use and may be reserved ahead of time. Click here for information about how to reserve and use one of the wheelchairs.

Focus on early recruitment 

Both departments made a concerted effort to start earlier recruiting. Members of both departments visited ETHS and other suburban high schools during summer job fairs, and posted on social media to get the word out. 

Those efforts paid off. The city’s human resources department received a deluge of applications. Polep said there is a good split between men and women as well as more racial diversity in the applicants. Lakefront jobs are some of the most coveted summer jobs a young person can have in Evanston, according to Polep. 

As of mid-May, more than 140 people had applied to be a lakefront lifeguard and nearly 100 people had applied to work as aquatic camp counselor, gate attendant or in beach admissions. 

Polep is looking beyond just one summer. He’d like lifeguard training under the EFD to count toward the future if these lifeguards decide to pursue a career as first responders. 

“One of the other things I’m hoping to do – and I’m working with the Civil Service Commission on this – is if you’re an Evanston Fire Department lifeguard for a couple of years and (later) you ever want to become an Evanston police officer or firefighter, we want the lifeguard experience to count toward professional achievement points. The city establishes a hiring list every two years based on a written test score, oral interview and professional achievement points. These points are then calculated and the city creates a numerical ranking list, so those lifeguard points could help to bump you up higher on the list,” Polep said.

Arrington Lagoon update

Outdoor furnishings and lighting are on order to brighten the lagoon building patio, according to an email from Thompson. Installation is expected by early July so the public can enjoy food they bring from home or restaurants. The planned restaurant, Upsy-Daisy Café managed by Vinic Wine Co., will not be ready this year.

“An agreement with Upsy-Daisy has not been drafted or executed to date,” wrote Thompson, “It’s likely that any food operation occurring at the lagoon picnic shelter this year will be of the short-term/pop-up variety.”  

Even with shifting the lifeguard expense to EFD, the beaches are still running at a predicted deficit of $112,633, according to the 2023 budget. Anyone interested in making a donation toward the beach operation fund can do so by going online here.

Wendi Kromash

Wendi Kromash is curious about everything and will write about anything. She tends to focus on one-on-one interviews with community leaders, recaps and reviews of cultural events, feature stories about...

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