CHICAGO — As temperatures rise and pandemic restrictions lift, people across the country are flocking to pools and beaches for some much-needed R&R.
But a national lifeguard shortage poses serious safety risks, and some experts warn there could be a surge in summer drownings.
“The lifeguard shortages we are seeing across the country are alarming,” Cavanagh Law Group founding partner Tim Cavanagh said. “Lifeguards must constantly scan the water to make sure there aren’t swimmers in danger. When there aren’t enough lifeguards on hand to adequately watch after everyone, it becomes far too easy for a preventable tragedy to occur.”
When the COVID-19 pandemic forced pools and training facilities to close last year, many lifeguards were unable to complete necessary certification and recertification courses. Once training resumed, capacity limits kept classes small.
Closed facilities also meant many lifeguards had nowhere to practice and hone their skills. Last month, Block Club Chicago reported that a number of this year’s Chicago Park District lifeguard applicants were unable to pass a swimming test.
B.J. Fisher, a longtime lifeguard and director of health and safety for the American Lifeguard Association, told the Boston Globe he expects to see a number of unguarded beachfronts this summer. “We are looking probably at record drownings over previous years,” he told the newspaper.
In an average year, 10 people in the U.S. die each day from drowning, according to the National Safety Council. Drowning remains a leading cause of death for children, with boys under 15 dying from drowning at twice the rate of girls.
The attorneys at Cavanagh Law Group have seen what happens when lifeguards are poorly trained and facilities are insufficiently staffed.
In 2020, the firm obtained a $6 million settlement for a man who nearly drowned in a supervised pool in the Chicago area in 2017.
The man was swimming laps when he had a heart attack at the edge of the pool and went underwater. He was within 10 feet of two lifeguards at the time, but they were talking to each other and failed to see him. The man was submerged for more than five minutes before he was rescued by another swimmer.
“The lifeguard’s job is to scan the pool and be alert,” Cavanagh said. “The surveillance video makes it clear the lifeguards were distracted and not doing their jobs. It’s miraculous our client survived, but his injuries will impact him for the rest of his life.”
Both lifeguards on duty had been certified for fewer than two months at the time of the incident and were left alone that day without supervision. Additionally, the business had a position for an aquatics director that was unfilled.
Cavanagh Law Group also discovered one of the lifeguards had a foot injury that prevented her from walking the length of the pool. Both internal rules and industry standards require lifeguards to walk the length of the pool, scan the pool and not talk to coworkers or patrons while on duty.
“There are rules and guidelines in place to keep incidents like this from happening,” Cavanagh Law Group partner Mike Sorich said. “Families who are going to a community pool or having a beach day should be able to trust that lifeguards will be well trained, alert and able to protect the swimmers in their care.”
In a separate near-drowning case, Cavanagh Law Group in 2018 obtained a settlement for an Illinois woman whose toddler daughter was submerged underwater during a swimming lesson. Neither the girl’s instructor nor the lifeguards on duty at the suburban Chicago pool noticed the girl for 40 to 50 seconds. She sustained injuries that required medical treatment.
“The pool had protocols in place that should have protected this girl,” Cavanagh said, “but the lifeguards weren’t following them.”
If an injury occurs, it is important to contact an attorney to determine the best course of action and to preserve evidence in your case.
At Cavanagh Law Group, our attorneys have the passion, drive and experience to take on complex and diverse cases across the United States — and win. We are available 24/7 to answer questions and address concerns. Contact us today for a free case evaluation.