Baywatch challenges: Short-staffing, equipment woes plague lifeguards

The content originally appeared on: Trinidad and Tobago Newsday

A Maracas Bay lifeguard looks out from a tower on Friday. – Angelo Marcelle

Short-staffing and a lack of equipment are the main complaints of lifeguards on Trinidad beaches, most of which are controlled by the Ministry of National Security. There are less than 100 lifeguards covering ten beaches, while at least 200 are needed.

A recent video on social media highlighted the problem, as a lifeguard was seen warning bathers at Maracas Bay that he and others like him were under strain.

Sunday Newsday visited the Macqueripe, Chagville, Maracas Bay, Tyrico, Las Cuevas, Quinam, and Los Iros beaches on Friday.

In the west at Macqueripe and Chagville, no lifeguards were present. Sunday Newsday was told those beaches were controlled by the Chaguaramas Development Authority, and lifeguards operate on weekends and public holidays.

At Macqueripe, one beachgoer said, “If lifeguards are here, we’ll feel good, but honestly, I don’t think it makes a huge difference. I believe it’s people’s own responsibility to take precautions and stay safe. Lifeguards could drown too.”

Another beachgoer said, “I don’t feel safe without them here. If they are here, I would go and bathe further out, but without them I have to stay close to the shore.”

On the north coast, Las Cuevas patrol captain Carlyle Ryan said the lifeguard association isn’t asking for much, but in comparison to other organisations that fall under the ministry, they feel completely ignored.

Children approach a lifeguard at Quinam beach on Friday. – Marvin Hamilton

“A little over ten years ago, we had some trainees from the area who were trained as full-fledged lifeguards. They brought them on just for weekends, public holidays, a little long stint with the Easter and Christmas holidays, and all of a sudden, it cut, the government cut funding. I have lifeguards that are overworked, and all we’re asking for is about three guards to back up the unit until they put their house in order.”

“This unit had 15 guards, one passed away, another retired, two were sent to Maracas Bay to replace a retiring patrol captain, another lifeguard died earlier this year, the two murdered lifeguards were also from here, so I’m short seven people, and I have not been given any replacements.”

He said due to understaffing, he is often charged with the sometimes impossible task of manning the Las Cuevas beach on his own.

“I was one of the guards who never wanted to strike to put the bathers at risk. When it comes to protest action, we could protest and work, I could wear a ribbon on my jersey, I could walk up and down with a placard and I’m protesting.”

Ryan also said there is a lack of equipment.

“They bring one jet ski, the jet ski there for over a year now. I came out of lockdown to retrieve the jet ski, and they took the keys and carried them away. You know why? They say it have a ball and pin attachment and they don’t have the ball yet, to get the jet ski from the shed to the water. That is just about $300.”

He noted that the ministry had offered lifeguards at Las Cuevas counselling after the murders of their colleagues Shereen Bailey-Valdez and Hollis Valdez on July 29.

A lifeguard patrols Las Cuevas alongside beachgoers on Friday. – Angelo Marcelle

Maracas Bay patrol captain Karl Hernandez said understaffing often causes Maracas to be without lifeguards.

He said, “Especially on weekends and public holidays, my men would start working at 6 am and they would leave at noon.”

Asked if he feels as though bathers are endangered when there are no lifeguards, Hernandez said, “We try to tell them that we’re leaving and to take the necessary precautions. That’s the best we can do. We only have seven lifeguards and look how big Maracas Bay is. We just don’t have the manpower.”

Hernandez bemoaned the fact that the police and fire services receive new recruits every year, but the ministry cannot provide funding to back the lifeguard service.

“I won’t advise anyone to become a lifeguard. Not because it isn’t important, it is one of the most important jobs out there, but the government continuously neglects us, that causes a huge strain on us. This has been going on for 18 years now.”

At Quinam Beach in Siparia, lifeguards complained about bad roads, deplorable facilities, insufficient staff, lack of transportation, and no phone service.

The winding access road to the beach facility, the Penal/Quinam Road, is plagued with potholes. Most of the streetlights along this road, which borders the Penal/Debe and Siparia regional corporations, do not work.

A jet ski in need of repair at Las Cuevas. – Angelo Marcelle

Taxis do not traverse the route, and for the past two years, the lifeguards said they were left without transportation. The maxi taxi provided to them went for repairs and no replacement was sent. They use their vehicles to get to and from work. If their vehicles are not working, they have no choice but to walk to work for miles.

“Apart from that, we have no ambulances on site. We never had. If people get into difficulties and we bring them out of the water, the most we could do is CPR on them. We have to either get their relatives or a member of the public to take them to the health facility,” a lifeguard said.

“We have no phone service. To make a call, we have to go at least a mile and a half from here to get a connection. We use our personal phones, and we do not get reimbursed.”

Lack of manpower was also a major problem for them.

“On weekends, we sometimes have only two lifeguards. Sometimes on the weekend, we have about 3,000 people, and two guards cannot adequately supervise that many. We need extra manpower in case of an emergency. If there is an emergency and the lifeguard has to leave the beach, what happens to the other?”

A tour of the two-storey lifeguard facility showed the iron stair railing rusting, with parts on the verge of collapse. A gaping hole on the roof on the top floor causes water to flood the floor. The electrical fixtures are also damaged.

A lifeguard said, “This facility was renovated and reopened in 2018. But it is not maintained. Most of the lights are not working. Restoration work was also done on the eroding coastline.”

At the Los Iros beach facility in Erin, lifeguards made similar complaints. The prefab facility has lots of cracks which causes water to seep inside.

They fear a nearby huge pine tree can crash down anytime and damage the facility. Whenever heavy rains fall, large branches break and fall to the ground.

A lifeguard said, “We have no maintenance staff. We have no transportation because the van went for repairs. That was over two years ago. The drivers are being forced to do the cleaning. They are pressured into doing it.”

“We are understaffed and right now, two people are on vacation. We have not had medical fitness done for the past six years. Yet, supervisors keep sending memos for us to do constant training. People could drop dead during training depending on their health condition.”

He recalled that the facility had a rat infestation problem less than a month ago.

He added, “Everyone knows what is happening but is not doing anything to fix the problems. Even our uniforms are old and need new ones. It is a struggle being a lifeguard.”

President of the lifeguard branch of the National Union of Government and Federated Workers (NUGFW) Augustus Sylvester said when the lifeguard service was transferred to the National Security Ministry in 2015, it had 13 vehicles, including three ambulances, of which none are currently working. He said this presented a problem not only in assisting beachgoers in distress but ensuring that lifeguards on beaches in rural areas could get to and from work and be safe. He said three jet skis were purchased but were not being used because of the lack of the ball-and-pin attachment.

He said the recent case where someone drowned while saving a child at Clifton Hill Beach showed the importance of both lifeguards and proper equipment. In this incident, Otis Morrison drowned while saving a 11-year-old girl on Monday.

“Someone with a jet ski took the girl, that shows how important it is. We also see where good-wishers or Samaritans or family members, seeing their family/friends in trouble, would want to go to assist. We advise strongly against it unless they are trained. Don’t make contact with that person, get a flotation device/clothing to throw to them. It is so dangerous that a small child can drown an adult. (Dylan) Carter and (George) Bovell could go out and drown as they are not trained in rescue,” he said.

He also noted the short-staffing issues, saying none of the 60 people trained as lifeguards 13 years ago were hired.

“Throughout the years no one entered, people have been leaving, people died from covid19 and violence, we are decreasing all the time, and we have seen no replacements. The ministry covers ten beaches: Las Cuevas, Tyrico, Maracas in the north; Salybia, Toco, Manzanilla, which is closed for renovation, and Mayaro in the east; and in south, Los Iros, Quinam, and Vessigny. We have less than 100 lifeguards to man those beaches, imagine you have Maracas Bay with five and six lifeguards on a weekend, we need at least 200 lifeguards for the ten beaches.”

He said for this reason, beachgoers have to take extra precautions as there are insufficient lifeguards to man the beaches.

Sylvester said the understaffing also threatened the health and safety of the lifeguards. He said benefits which were offered to lifeguards were withdrawn.

“A lifeguard is an athlete. In order for a lifeguard to make a rescue, first he have to run like (Usain) Bolt, then he have to hurdle over the waves like (Jehue) Gordon, then he has to swim like Carter, then fight up to save his life from the drowning person, then bring them back to shore, and then perform CPR on them. Lifeguards were accustomed to an annual medical check, and this ministry stopped that, so we have lifeguards out there and we don’t know how fit they are to carry out that duty and make that rescue.”

Sylvester said a meeting with National Security Minister Fitzgerald Hinds earlier this year was a waste of time.

“We had a meeting with the minister and he didn’t have a clue as to what lifeguards is about. He was displaying his ignorance without understanding what is taking place on the job. We have no equipment to work with, every year we’re seeing police getting vehicles, and we’re just asking that they share the bounty as the only people under the ministry who seem to be getting anything is the police.”

Hinds confirmed he met with lifeguards and those issues were raised. He said he had been assured that they would not take action to put the people of TT at risk.

“I was quite surprised, therefore to see that recently, they have embarked yet again, on another set of absenting themselves and so on. And as a result, the Ministry of Tourism which has responsibility for the beaches, notwithstanding the fact that the lifeguards are within the purview of the Ministry of National Security, the Ministry of Tourism would have had to issue warning notices to the public saying look here, you should be careful, or, you shouldn’t use here because today or this weekend is without lifeguards.”

Hinds said he would meet with lifeguards if he was approached for an audience, and would continue to work closely with them.(with reporting by Nicholas Bayley, Laurel Williams, Jensen Le Vende)