Toledo pool needs lifeguards

Paul Steenkolk, Greater Toledo Pool District manager, poses by the pool’s new chair lift, funded by the Siletz Tribe. The pool is currently closed due to COVID restrictions and won’t be able to reopen without additional lifeguards, Steenkolk said. The swimming pool in Toledo hosts instruction, classes and recreational swimming in normal times. When it reopens, capacity will be severely limited due to COVID restrictions. (Photos by Cheri Brubaker)

TOLEDO — As new safety standards have been put in place by Occupational Health and Safety Administration, there is a lifeguard shortage, Greater Toledo Pool District Manager Paul Steenkolk explained. “Even when we are cleared to open (after the freeze ends), we won’t be able to open because we won’t have anybody trained,” he said.

The pool kept staff on for two months, he said, but it became necessary, with no end in sight, to lay people off. Now, even if those lifeguards are available to come back, they will need to be retrained to meet new standards put in place by the American Red Cross in its lifeguard course.

Making use of the time the pool was closed, it was drained, and an extensive repair project was done. “We jackhammered the deck out of the pool, the sides of the pool and replaced all of the inlets,” Steenkolk said. Replacing the inlets, likely original to the pool built in 1947, was a necessary project to improve water efficiency. A new lift chair was also installed, made possible by a grant from the Siletz Tribal Charitable Contribution Fund.

Steenkolk said the Oregon Recreation and Parks Association has been holding bi-weekly meetings to discuss the problems encountered and how to implement the new standards that have been put in place in order to open a pool. 

“Before, normal operations would be for two guards to open the pool, do a chemical check and open the door,” he said. “Now, I have to have two guards (and) a front door monitor, for contact tracing and to take temperatures. I have to have another person to monitor social distancing. I’m going from a payroll of two and doubling it in order to be open because of the new standards required of pools.” He doesn’t have the staff to do that.

With the new social distancing requirements, the pool was required to purchase rescue mannequins at $1,000 each in order to hold an American Red Cross Lifeguard Course, Steenkolk said, which they were able to do.

The pool’s special district is in the fortunate position to not be in need of funds, he said, crediting financial help from the Special Districts Association of Oregon COVID relief funds, which offset additional costs like the rescue dummies. “The extra hand sanitizers I have to have in the building have been offset by the COVID funds,” Steenkolk added.

“Our financial situation is fine. We need staff,” Steenkolk said. “It’s not only us. There’s a shortage of lifeguards across the country.”

Even if the lifeguards the pool was forced to lay off in June were available to come back, he said, there are rules that are completely different than before. “CPR is going to change. There are new guidelines. You have to gown up before you do any lifesaving measures,” he explained.

Steenkolk plans to hold a lifeguard certification course. He hopes to be able to have people complete online instruction in early December, so that when the pool is open, the in-water instruction can take place. 

 “It’s a very difficult situation,” he pointed out. “No one really knows; everything changes basically on a day-to-day basis. If you went to work with a fever last December, that wasn’t a problem. If you do go to work with a fever now, it’s an OSHA violation,” he said, illustrating the new normal. “It’s very hard to stay on top of it.”

Steenkolk pointed out that a lifeguard is a first responder. “The board and I have discussed that it is a lifesaving skill. Lifeguards should be compensated.” Currently, with experience, a lifeguard will earn $15 to $16 dollars an hour, he said. Starting out, it’s $13.50 to $14 dollars an hour. As the minimum wages rises, Steenkolk expects that to increase. 

Those wishing to apply to be a lifeguard, or inquire about the course can reach out to Steenkolk at 541-336-3181, option 2.

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