2010-06-03 / Local & State

Lifeguards Absent From Most Park Beaches


Lifeguards are returning to work this summer at Pine Grove Furnace State Park's Fuller Lake – but that’s one of only two lake beaches in Pennsylvania's state parks that will get them.

The state Department of Conservation and Natural Resources in 2008 eliminated lifeguards at all state park public beaches except for Lake Erie's Presque Isle State Park. Lifeguards were added to Fuller Lake after a teenager drowned there in July of that year. Lifeguards remain at pools in state parks.

Agency spokesman Chris Novak said the decision was made “for reasons of operating more efficiently, providing greater access to public beaches.”

But Chris Brewster, president of the U.S. Lifesaving Association, called it “an extremely unwise decision that placed saving money over public safety.”

Novak said the lifeguards cost the parks more than

800,000 per year, but the decision wasn't about a recent cash crunch but part of a 10- year program begun in 1998 to phase out lifeguards at 58 of the 59 beaches.

“If someone were to give us the money, I think that we have many other budgetary priorities first,” she said.

There have been three drownings at state parks since 1998, two at guarded beaches in 1999 and the last the 17-year-old who drowned at Fuller Lake in 2008 while visiting with a Bucks County youth group home, according to DCNR statistics.

Novak said state parks are able to leave “swim at your own risk” beaches open later in the year, since lifeguards were often high school and college students and beaches struggled to stay open when the students left in August to go back to school. She also said Pennsylvanians seem to accept the measures.

“People have gotten suited to it and seem to accept it,” she said of the policy, which she said was similar to those in other states. “I would say that's probably the norm.”

A 2008 report by the state auditor general's office critical of the decision said 34 states have unguarded beaches. Twelve of those states never used lifeguards and five removed them since 2000. The report said California and Connecticut reported an increase in drownings when lifeguard use was limited.

The auditor general also cited a 2005 Florida Supreme Court decision that government entities could be liable for drownings at unguarded public beaches if they do more to promote swimming than just provide access, such as putting in parking or public facilities and concessions.

In West Virginia, one of the three states that do require lifeguards at all public beaches, parks section district administrator Robert Beanblossom said he has heard criticism of spending money on lifeguards.

But “by providing a safe environment, if we have saved one life over the years, then it is worth every penny that we have spent,” he said.

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