Singapore Sports Council issues call for lifeguards as number of pools surges

Fewer being certified with life-saving award, but more swimming pool licences given out

The growing number of water parks and swimming pools has left Singapore struggling to find enough qualified lifeguards to watch over them.

Figures from the National Environment Agency show that 1,889 swimming pool licences were in force at the end of last year, up from 1,772 in 2011 and 1,624 in 2010.

Resources are being spread thinly, as the number of lifeguards has not grown as fast as the surge in public and private water facilities - such as water parks and glitzy hotel and condominium pools.

The largest employer of lifeguards is the Singapore Sports Council (SSC), which covers 25 public swimming pools, but not private ones. It now has 319 full-time lifeguards, up from 268 in 2010.

But fewer people are being certified with the physically demanding Bronze Medallion award - the minimum criterion to become a lifeguard.

Just 683 were certified with the award last year, down from 880 in 2011.

Less than a third of them go on to become lifeguards, as many take up the award as a hobby, said Mr Richard Tan, president of the Singapore Life Saving Society. Thus, the major employers of lifeguards have ramped up recruitment efforts and redesigned the job scope to retain and attract lifeguards.

Late last year, the SSC started casting its net wider by hiring those who do not have any training in lifeguarding. They join a trainee lifeguard programme, in which the certification needed to become a lifeguard is acquired.

The first batch of 47 newly certified lifeguards was deployed to its pools last month.

"The demand has risen and as competition for the recruitment of lifeguards intensifies, we have to actively recruit new lifeguards to ensure a high service level at all times," said Mr Andy Tan, senior director of SSC's Sports and Recreation Centres.

Sentosa has the only public beaches in Singapore that are watched by a beach patrol team. These officers are also trained to answer queries, maintain facilities and conduct public education on water safety.

"I enjoy having these added responsibilities... it is more challenging and allows me to stretch my potential," said lead beach patrol officer Wong Hao Sheng, 31.

While some welcome the expanded job scope - which can mean higher pay - others say it detracts from their main specialised role of saving lives.

"Sometimes they may have to manage the pump room to clean or test the water, but many lifeguards prefer to concentrate on their guarding roles," said Mr Tan.

Unattractive pay and limited career progression are some of the reasons why there is difficulty attracting and retaining lifeguards, he added.

The monthly wages, depending on experience, range from $1,000 plus to more than $2,000. Supervisors and managers can earn more than $3,000.

Former lifeguard Sim Lye Hock, 56, who now oversees sports facilities at the National University of Singapore, said that few graduates wish to become lifeguards as the pay is low and the work is not challenging enough.

"The situation is really bad as those older lifeguards with little academic qualifications are retiring but young people don't seem to be coming on board," said Ms Tan Sze Ngee, 26, a lifeguard at the Jalan Besar Sports and Recreation Centre.

Employers are supplementing their pool of lifeguards with part-timers and foreigners. The SSC has hired lifeguards from Malaysia, the Philippines and China, while 18 of the 30 beach patrol officers in Sentosa are part-timers.

But part-timers and foreigners may not have sufficient experience in handling different cases if they are not properly trained, said Mr Tan, who fears employers may cut back on lifeguards.

"A shortage of lifeguards is likely to compromise water safety, as studies have shown that supervision by lifeguards reduced drownings," he said.

The number of drowning cases heard in the coroner's court rose to 48 last year from 29 in 2011.

However, the total number of deaths by drownings has remained roughly stable, with 36 deaths in 2011 and 39 the year before.

Mr Tan suggested that independent audits could be held to ensure the correct number of lifeguards are in place, along with emergency action plans.

The SSC, which manages 25 pools, said that generally two lifeguards are deployed at each competition pool, while one is stationed at smaller pools.

Mr Tan added that more lifeguards are learning to use oxygen gear and defibrillators.

But technology can never replace having people on the ground, with their eyes trained on the waters, said SSC senior lifeguard Joe Cheng, 50.

He added: "Recruitment efforts have to be stepped up."

jantai@sph.com.sg