OLDS — The town was forced to close the Olds Aquatic Centre during the Family Day holiday on Feb. 20 because of a recurring problem: a lack of lifeguards, chief administrative officer Brent Williams says.
Williams made that announcement during council’s Feb. 27 meeting, saying it’s not the first time the pool has had to be closed due to that shortage. It was closed for several days during the Christmas break for the same reason.
Williams said town staff have been trying to find a solution to the problem and that includes running a “perpetual” ad on the town website as well as print and social media. But there have been few takers.
They also looked at maybe sharing pool hours with the Didsbury Aquatic Centre, but that wasn’t a solution either because staff there are facing the same issue.
Williams said in fact, the shortage of lifeguards is a nationwide problem, due to a lack of lifeguard training brought on by COVID restrictions.
Williams noted that council earlier approved a cut equivalent to $80,000 for service level at the Olds Aquatic Centre in its 2023 operating budget.
That was supposed to occur in the second quarter of this year but "we had to accelerate that reduction in service level and then also triage some key holiday dates that were just not staffable to a reasonable level” due to the lifeguard shortage, he said.
Williams explained that the number of patrons allowed in the pool is not only based on the size of the pool but also the number of lifeguards on duty.
"Given that we have lifeguard shortages, we are faced with the decision to either open for a severely limited, reduced number of pool occupants or to close the facility for that date," he said.
“Family Day was an example recently where we just did not have enough staff to justify opening it.”
In addition, Williams said, until April 6, several evening classes have been reduced and operating hours in the morning were cut.
“The rationale on how we chose which courses to reduce was both based on attendance and also on demographic of users,” he said.
He added that the goal was to ensure a good mix of seniors, school children, college students and special needs residents could still access the pool.
Williams noted that family public swims are “by far” the most popular and highest revenue driver.
“But that’s not to lessen the importance that those programming hours have to the people who attend,” he said. “It’s more making the best of an unfortunate situation.”
Coun. Wanda Blatz said she received several calls about the Family Day shutdown.
She understood why the decision was made but asked if there’s anything the town can do to rectify the shortage; possibly by encouraging people to take training to become lifeguards.
"That might be an ideal job for high school or college students, to be able to be a lifeguard," she said.
Williams said the town has advertised for lifeguards via its website and “fairly regularly” in print and social media, but the uptake has been pretty limited.
“I think the issue is there’s just not much appetite for the job,” he said. "The students that we do have are fantastic, but obviously, students are the primary applicants and they can only work a certain number of hours as well.”
He said another issue is that “not every student wants to work 'til close, 10:30 at night. “A lot of them have families that they still travel with and that was a key concern over Christmas and Family Day.”
Williams said it’s too bad the option of sharing closure hours with the Didsbury facility didn’t work out.
"We’re finding that the availability of the current staff is all the same, so trying to close on a Sunday afternoon early, that’s also when Didsbury can’t find staff, for example, so I’m not sure that’s a solution either,” he said.
"We are investigating it. It’s just something that everyone seems to be facing right now.”