Nancy Maguire says she can sense the difference.
“It’s a huge change,” says Maguire.
“A good change,” she adds, “but a big one.”
Now in her 5th season as an Evanston lifeguard, the 20-year-old college student (Ohio State) says now that the lifeguard program is operated by the Fire Department, instead of Parks and Recreation, “It’s a lot more organized.”
Maguire, who spoke with Evanston Now at the Dempster Street beach office, said “everything is running smoothly” since the beaches opened on May 28.
That was not the case last year, when a lifeguard shortage led to the closing of Greenwood Beach (one of six on the lakefront) for most of the summer. That was after two-years of COVID-related restrictions.
City leaders put the Fire Department in charge of lifeguards this year, after a sexual harrassment scandal. More than 50 female lifeguards signed a petition in 2020 that, according to an independent investigation by a law firm, alleged that “male lifeguards were subjecting their female colleagues to rampant sexual misconduct.”
Fallout from how the issue was handled was seen to have played a role in the departure three top city officials, Human Resources Manager Jennifer Lin, Parks Director Lawrence Hemenway and City Manager Erika Storlie.
This summer is different. Not only is there a new operational structure, but there is also no lifeguard shortage. There were plenty of applicants.
140 people, city officials say, signed up for lifeguard and water recreation camp positions.
Ald. Krissie Harris (2nd) said at the May 22 City Council meeting that “the numbers being up is a testiment that people are beginning to have faith in us after some of the things we’ve been through.”
Starting pay was increased to $18.50 an hour, which jumps to $20.50 after two years.
There’s also a chance for lifeguards to win a $500 scholarship at the end of the summer.
Greenwood Beach is back open.
Fire Department Operations Chief Matt Smith tells Evanston Now that the chain of command has been clearly defined for lifeguards, in case they need to report any issues.
There is new equipment, such as updated two-way radios.
Smith told City Council recently that those radios will make it easier for beach managers to communicate with each other, as well as with the 911 dispatch center.
The previous radios, Smith said, had “an antiquated frequency that barely made it to the Dempster Street beach house.”
There are also 11 new life safety rings along the waterfront, new paddle boards and kayaks, and a new boat for the Recreation Department.
Even though the lifeguards now work for the Fire Department, Parks and Recreation will still run the camps and aquatic activites at the beaches.
The first group of lifeguard/aquatics counselors went through training last week. Of the 55 in that class, Smith says many were returnees.
Now, there will be a separate training session for 70-plus new hires.
Smith says adequate staffing is not only critical for the safety of beachgoers, but also for the lifeguards themselves.
Especially in August, he said, with the sun beating down, a lifeguard “can’t physically stare at the water for more than 20-30 minutes” without losing efficiency and being impacted by the heat.
Having enough staff lets the lifeguards rotate from the overlook chair to a shade and water break.
If there is one very good omen for the new lifeguard program, it’s been the beautiful weather for the first few days of the beaches being open.
Add the sunshine in with the new organizational structure, updated equipment, and enough staff, and Smith says, “We’re expecting a lot of good, fun opportunities” this summer.