Drones, Wage Hikes for Lifeguards Will Help Water Safety; 2nd Grade Swim Lessons Still Scrapped

It appears more first time lifeguards are signing up to guard NYC pools and beaches this summer. Mayor Adams also said the city will use NYPD drones to help lifeguards rescue swimmers in distress and keep an eye out for sharks. But swimming lessons for all public school second graders are still on the scrap heap due to budget cuts.

| 23 Feb 2024 | 06:51

The starting salary for lifeguards has been boosted to $22 an hour and city officials are hoping that will go a long way to solving some of the severe lifeguard shortages that have plagued the city in recent years.

Mayor Eric Adams said he expects the city to expand its use of drones by the NYPD to aid swimmers in trouble by dropping inflateable rafts into the water as well as guiding lifeguards so they don’t lose sight of struggling swimmers.

“They’re going to start out with Coney Island, and they’re going to grow from there,” Adams said at his weekly press briefing on Feb. 20. “I think it can be a great addition to saving the lives of those that we lose over the summer.”

The drones could also be used for shark spotting. A 65 year-old woman who once lived on the UES suffered serious injury to her leg after she was bitten by a shark on Beach 59th and Rockaway Beach. She was pulled to safety by two NYC lifeguards.

In a water safety setback, a city council bill that passed last year that would have given mandatory swimming lessons to all 70,000 public school second graders is still on the scrap heap. Adams cut the $5.2 million that was originally allocated for the swim lessons when he unveiled a sweeping round of budget cuts three months ago. There was at least one drowning in Manhattan in October when 13-year-old Kavion Brown jumped into the East River near East River Park and E. 6th St. while on a school outing. There were also four drownings at Rockaway Beach last year after lifeguards had gone off duty at 6 pm.

While some cuts to police and FDNY were restored, swimming lessons for second graders remained a casualty of the budget crunch.

“We had to make some real tough choices on our budgetary cuts,” Adams said. “But I think that where the cuts took place, there are some real creative ways of having real partnerships to address some of those issues, particularly swimming.”

And the lifeguard shortage that crippled the ability to offer youth swim lessons in pools in Manhattan and elsewhere across the city the past two years could be easing. “I’m happy to report we have more lifeguards signed up at this time this year than we had last year, ” said deputy mayor of operations Meera Joshie. but she said it was too early to tell if the number of new lifeguards will be enough to solve the severe shortages of recent years.

Swimming lessons for youngsters were at one time offered at virtually all NYC Parks Department swimming pools. Within Manhattan last year, only one pool on the lower east side was offering youngster swim lessons.

It is too early to tell if there will be enough lifeguards to handle swimming lessons in addition to guard duties. “It’s still in the process,” Josie said. She said the wage hike from the $16/hour starting salary two years ago and the $19 an hour in 2023 should help. At the start of last year, it was still lagging the salary that NYS was paying its lifeguards at Jacob Riis Park in Rockaway Beach or Robert Moses Beach on Long Island before Adams boosted pay for city lifeguards. But the July 6th agreement with the Lifeguard unions came after the life guard tests and training that are done early in the year for the upcoming season. The higher wage therefore had no impact in boosting numbers in 2023. As a result, pool swimming lessons and pool hours remained curtailed in the city; protected “green flag” beach swim zones at ocean beaches had to be narrowed. Lifeguards received another wage hike this year to $22/hour.

“The wage increase now makes New York City on par with some of our competitors, and if you’re going to get paid the same, why not be on a New York City beach, so I think more lifeguards are certainly interested in working in New York City,” said deputy mayor Joshie.

While the number of rookie lifeguards is up, she said it was not clear how many veteran lifeguard were returning. “We’re up for new-to-lifeguarding in New York City,” said Joshie. “Those that are registering, they have to take the training as well, but it’s too early to tell also for our returning lifeguards.”

Returning lifeguards were also being offered a $1,000 bonus, payable at the end of the summer if they worked through the peak season.

Adams also suggested allowing migrants to become lifeguards. “And as you mentioned, we have a real shortage of lifeguards. Mind you, we have a lot of migrants and asylum seekers, if we allow them to work they can fill the lifeguard shortage that we’re having.”

In other water safety initiatives, Mayor Eric Adams said the city is going to continue with its pilot program whereby the NYPD will deploy drones at city beaches to help lifeguards locate swimmers in trouble at the city’s ocean beaches as well as for shark patrols.

“There’s a speaker on the drone,” said Adams, who said he witnessed a demonstration of the drones last summer. “You can hear it clearly. So, if that person is swimming towards someone, now you have eyes in the sky telling you the person is straight ahead, the person is off to your right, the person went under in front of you...You’re no longer blindly trying to figure out where the person is located. We’re adding eyes in the sky to assist.”

But a program that was championed by UES city council member Julie Menin to guarantee swimming lessons for 70,000 public school second graders is not going to see its $5.2 million budget restored. It fell victim to the first round of budget cuts unveiled by Adams earlier this year for the coming fiscal year.

He said the +Pool that the NYS is going to introduce into the East River as a test this summer with the hope of rolling out for use by residents next year should help. He also suggested school swimming teams, and off duty NYPD officers could help teach youngsters to swim.

“All of our swim teams in the Department of Education should step up right now and say how do we put in place a real program to allow our young people how to swim?

“Swimming is a real issue. You know, we’re surrounded by water and we need to do everything possible to get our young people the knowledge to swim and particularly in underserved communities.”