Lifeguard shortage threatens Knoxville pools

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At times, overcast skies kept many swimmers away from Ed Cothren Pool over the Memorial Day weekend. Photos by Megan Sadler.

Staff members at the City of Knoxville’s two outdoor swimming facilities, Ed Cothren Pool and Inskip Pool, welcomed swimmers, sunbathers and cannonballers for the first time of the season over the Memorial Day weekend. 

However, the popular summer destinations were almost unable to open for the 2022 swim season. That’s because, for the past several years, pool management says they’ve been struggling to hire enough lifeguards to keep swimmers safe. 

“If you would have asked me in January or February, I would have guessed we wouldn’t be able to open this summer,” said Chuck Faulkner, who manages the Ed Cothren pool. “Last year we struggled really, really bad.”

The two swimming pools have been neighborhood fixtures for generations.  

Ed Cothren, located off Western Avenue in Malcolm-Martin Park, is a 275,000-gallon pool that features a diving board and lots of space to get some sun. 

If you head over to Inskip, you’ll find the community pool there is even larger. It features a 285,000-gallon pool with two low diving boards and and a high one. Inskip Pool draws larger crowds, sometimes up to 500 swimmers a day, due to popular summer programming like swimming lessons.

The large crowds attracted to the pools during the dog days of summer — plus the fact that most lifeguards are teens and young adults who have family vacations, summer camps, and summer sports events  — make juggling schedules difficult. 

Nevertheless, having enough lifeguards at the pools is an absolute necessity. 

“When you’re trying to guard a pool with 100 people and six lifeguards, it just becomes dangerous,” said Faulkner. 

Increased risks due to short staffing could mean the pool is forced to cut back on operations, he explained.

Olivia Jones assists Nathaniel Travis, 16, during his first day of lifeguarding at Ed Cothren Pool.

“After-hours reservations would be the first thing to go,” Faulkner said. “But when it comes to swimming lessons… Those are way too important to cut, because of drowning rates at lakes and things like that. It’s scary. There’s so many kids who need to learn to swim just so they don’t drown. I don’t think swim lessons could ever be cut, that’s a non-negotiable.”

The need for certified swimming instructors is even more critical than lifeguards this year, Faulkner said. The qualifications for the job require additional training on top of American Red Cross certification. Depending on the instructor’s experience level, the job currently pays between $12 and $15 per hour. 

“Inskip does all the swim lessons and that’s huge,” Faulkner said. “The classes are always completely booked out.”

During last year’s lifeguard shortage, Ed Cothren Pool only had 12 lifeguards and was forced to close in August. Faulkner, however, says that 18 lifeguards have already been hired and he feels optimistic there will be plenty of uninterrupted pool time for the community. 

“We’ll see how things go,” said Faulkner. “We may close when school starts back, but if the crowds keep coming and we have the staff, we’ll stay open into September.”

Faulkner estimated that Inskip only had about 20-25 lifeguards in 2021, but this year were able to hire 30.

With so many young new hires, Inskip pool will have to close from May 31 through June 3 for training.  

Lifeguard Nathaniel Travis, 16, said he was both nervous and excited as Saturday marked his first day on the stand at Ed Cothren Pool.  

Fortunately, Travis had 18-year-old Olivia Jones to show him how it’s done. 

“I chose to be a lifeguard because it’s a fun summer job,” said Jones. “Same for me,” Travis agreed.

Olivia recounted only one incident in which a swimmer needed her help.

“They just swam a little too far out. I had to jump in and get them,” she said. 

Sierra Goins, 18, is a freshman who studies nursing at the University of Tennessee and works as a lifeguard during the summer.   

“I was pretty scared to start here,” said Goins. “But after getting over that fear, I’ve really enjoyed it. I just want to keep coming back. Like, I get excited for summer now,” she said.

Another lifeguard at Ed Cothren said he’s been spending his summers poolside for the past six years.  

Christian Moore, 20, says although it’s likely his last summer working at the pool, he’s thankful the job was able to get him through high school and college. 

“It’s a great place to work,” said Moore. “Great management, great atmosphere… It’s one of the best jobs to have. Especially through the summer. And it gets you qualified to handle emergencies outside of work, too.”

Moore says he’s glad the pool provides a place for local kids to hang out during the summer so they stay out of trouble and have a good time getting to know their neighbors. 

Sierra Goins, 18, (L)  and Christian Moore, 20, work as lifeguards at Ed Cothren Pool. In the background, Nathaniel Travis, 16, (L)  and Olivia Jones, 18, can be seen keeping an eye on swimmers.

Faulkner speculated the lifeguard shortage could be related to pay rates and the intensive training requirements. 

“The American Red Cross Certification is a an excellent course, but it’s 36 hours over three days, plus an online portion,” Faulkner said. “Kids don’t to want to go through all that for a job that pays $9.50 an hour when they could go work at Chick-fil-A and make just as much.”

According to Faulkner, the Aquatic Department has requested pay raises for lifeguards, but the money simply wasn’t in the City’s budget this season. Faulkner said the department plans to keep pushing for more funding to help alleviate the issue next year.

Thankfully, pool management is optimistic about the number of lifeguards on staff for now. The City worked hard to coordinate with Knox County Schools this year, and Faulkner says he believes the new strategy paid off.

“We used to just use flyers that never made it to anyone who was actually interested. This year, we got in contact with a career counselor at West High School… It was really lucky for us,” he said.

Knoxville isn’t the only place dealing with a lifeguard shortage. Multiple news outlets across the United States have reported similar struggles. 

According to Faulkner, parks and recreation officials from other major cities have said they’ve been forced to close public pools and cut back operations due to a shortage of lifeguards and certified swim instructors. During the National Recreation Parks Association Conference in 2020, city leaders came together to brainstorm ways to incentivize more people to become lifeguards.

“Some people were giving bonuses. Some people were saying if you worked the full summer you get this much at the end of the summer. I mean they were trying any type of incentive they could. But the thing was when you start talking to people from Salt Lake City, or Los Angeles or Chicago, or you know any other city that was there, they all have the same problems,” said Faulkner.

Back home, pool managers are thankful that things seem to be looking up so far this season. 

“It seems like people are things are starting to perk up and look up,” Faulkner said. “So I’m just going to take what I’ve got and be like, I’m blessed and we’re rolling with it right now. We’ve had three good days. So knock on wood…”

If all goes well this summer, both pools are expected to be open Monday-Saturday from 11 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from 1 p.m. to 6 p.m. through Labor Day, weather permitting. After Knox County Schools are back in session, the pools usually move to operate only on weekends. 

To check weather-related pool closures call Ed Cothren Pool at 865-544-7840 and Inskip Pool at 865-687-9919. Ed Cothren will be closed for minor repairs May 30 and 31.

General admission at Ed Cothren is $3 and $4 at Inskip, but frequent visitors can learn more about discounted admission with Splash Pass options online here.

To learn more about swim lessons and register for a class visit the swim lessons website here or call 865-525-9080.

Megan Sadler can be reached at news@hardknoxwire.com.

Published on May 31, 2022.