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Lifeguard shortage puts some Fargo-Moorhead area summer pool seasons in jeopardy

Dilworth's pool may not open in summer 2022, and others are considering reduced hours because they haven't been able to hire enough lifeguards.

A large outdoor pool is full of ice.
The municipal pool in the city of Dilworth is shown on April 15, 2022. The city says unless a wave of lifeguard applications comes in soon, there will be no outdoor pool season this summer.
David Samson / The Forum
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DILWORTH, Minn. — It may seem early given the recent snowfall, but lifeguard recruiting for the summer outdoor pool season is well underway in the Fargo-Moorhead metro area, and the outlook is not good.

Peyton Mastera, city administrator of Dilworth, said they’ve received only a handful of lifeguard applications thus far, and unless they get a wave of new applicants, there will be no outdoor pool season in Dilworth this year.

“The reality is, we need more guards to make it work,” he said.

Lance Belisle, recreation manager for the West Fargo Park District, said hiring there seems to be at a standstill.

“We are starting to get concerned,” he said.
Fargo and Moorhead park departments also noted they are facing challenges finding lifeguards.

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At Buffalo River State Park, near Glyndon, Minnesota, they’ve already made a decision to cancel swimming for the summer.

The Minnesota Department of Natural Resources announced the park’s swimming pond will be closed for the fourth straight year in 2022. The DNR cited a need for substantial repairs to mechanical systems and “historic difficulty” in finding lifeguards.

A water intake pipe was torn off by ice on the river, said Shawn Donais, district supervisor for DNR Parks and Trails.

Repairs would ideally be done when river water is low, and those conditions likely will not occur until midsummer, he said.

The sand-bottom pond is designed to be filled each year with water from the Buffalo River that is filtered and treated for swimming, then drained at the end of summer. It typically takes about a month for the pond to be filled.

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The swimming pond at Buffalo River State Park sits closed Thursday, June 20, east of Glyndon, Minn. The pond did not open in 2019 due to a lack of lifeguards. Forum file photo

The pond hasn’t had water in it since 2018, the year a 9-year-old girl from Moorhead drowned there during a Moorhead Police Department summer youth program outing.

The city of Dilworth is also familiar with forced limitations to its outdoor pool, which sees about 100 patrons on a typical summer day.

A scarcity of lifeguards in 2021 forced the city to cancel organized swimming lessons and Sunday openings for the first time ever and to modify some shifts to close early.

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Mastera said they’re not even considering the possibility of offering swimming lessons right now.

Last year, they employed seven lifeguards for the city’s municipal pool and “kiddie” pool, which Mastera described as a skeleton crew.

“We were really cutting it thin,” he said, adding they’d be more comfortable with 10 to 11 on staff.

In Fargo, around 100 lifeguards are needed to staff five outdoor pools, including Davies, Island Park, Madison, Roger Gress Northside and Southwest.

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Area youth beat the heat Monday, July 21, 2014, at the Fargo Davies Recreational Pool. David Samson / The Forum

Dave Klundt, aquatics manager for the Fargo Park District, said they’ve only received 60 to 70 applications and still need 30 to 40 more.

Fargo used to have a list of 15 to 20 substitute lifeguards, but not anymore, Klundt said.

West Fargo typically hires 12 lifeguards to staff its lone outdoor pool, Veterans Memorial, and is sitting at eight right now.

If they don’t get more, the pool will have to limit hours and possibly the number of days it's open each week, Belisle said.

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The city of Moorhead needs between 15 and 20 lifeguards to open its municipal pool at full capacity, said Melissa Discher, recreation program supervisor.

“The last two years, we have had to recruit a lot harder to get new lifeguards,” she said.

Moorhead pool.jpg
Moorhead Municipal Pool. Meagan Deanne / The Forum

The city has 6 other wading pools, but they’re staffed with attendants that don’t require the same certification as lifeguards.

While lifeguard work used to be a coveted summer job for high school and college students, many factors come into play to form the much smaller pool of candidates today.

Some of those cited were an overall labor shortage, better-paying jobs elsewhere, or teens being too busy with summer camps, training and travel games that often go along with being involved in athletics.

The training required to be a lifeguard, including CPR and first aid, may also seem a barrier for some, although most park departments either pay for or offer some reimbursement for training and uniforms.

Most Fargo-Moorhead metro cities are pleading for more lifeguard applicants.

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Children frolic at the Dilworth pool in July 2010.
Michael Vosburg/The Forum

Dilworth will evaluate the fate of its summer outdoor pool season as it draws closer, hoping for the best but bracing for the worst.

“It’s one of the staples of the community,” Mastera said.

Huebner is a 35+ year veteran of broadcast and print journalism in Fargo-Moorhead.
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