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‘You Are the Difference Between Life and Death in the Ocean’

An interview with longtime Rockaways lifeguard Janet Fash, as the city stares down another year of closed pools and beaches.

Rockaways lifeguard Janet Fash, in a red T-shirt and blue baseball cap, her back turned to the camera, at the beach.

Rockaways lifeguard Janet Fash at the beach. (Hell Gate)

For the past two years, the City has struggled to fill out the ranks of its lifeguards—leaving beaches closed, City pools with shortened hours, and children across the city being denied vital swim instruction courses. Efforts to boost recruitment, which have included raising the pay for lifeguards and lowering City standards that are in excess of state requirements, have failed to get more lifeguards into the high chairs. . Only a third of the lifeguards needed to fully staff beaches and pools this summer have been hired. 

As Queens Councilmember Shekar Krishnan, the chair of the City Council's Parks Committee, told Hell Gate, "We have a crisis right now, and it's not just about staffing the positions, it's that we've got a city surrounded by water and we aren't making sure that our children know how to swim, and know water safety practices."

There's probably no one in the city who is more familiar with the importance of water safety, as well as our dangerous (but often refreshing) waters, than Janet Fash. Fash is a chief lifeguard for the City, and has been patrolling beaches in the Rockaways for over forty years. 

We met up with Fash in the Rockaways on a beautiful late spring day last month to get her take on why the City has failed to hire enough lifeguards. Fash points the finger at the union (which she belongs to) that essentially runs the City's lifeguard program. "We were forevermore at a disadvantage," Fash said, after union officials took management positions in the lifeguard school. 

A 2021 report by the City's Department of Investigation found that the union was resistant to changes proposed by the Parks Department that would have provided further oversight of discipline, and that the union acted as an impediment to effective supervision by the City over safety and disciplinary issues. And a  recent New York Times piece dove into the high failure rate at the City's lifeguard schools, which are overseen by union leadership. 

Local 461, which is affiliated with DC 37, is the union that represents lifeguards at the City's pools and beaches. The union did not respond to a request for comment from Hell Gate.

This interview has been edited and condensed for clarity. You can hear a version of this interview on the most recent episode of the Hell Gate Podcast

Why did you become a lifeguard? 

I became a lifeguard in 1979, two years out of high school. One of my good, good friends, Barbara, was one of the first female lifeguards. She talked me into it. She said, "Janet, it's teamwork. You can do this." You know, we were swimmers at the Prospect Park Y in Brooklyn, and we loved riding the waves, body surfing.

Once you hit the sand as a lifeguard, there is nothing like it. You're on the beach, you're stimulated by the crowds, the ocean.

You get to swim, you get to ride the waves, and you make a difference in people's lives. You know, you are the difference between life and death in the ocean.

So what do you believe is behind the lifeguard shortage in New York City? 

There is a real national shortage, and we acknowledge that. But, what we have here is something sinister. This perennial problem—union corruption—dates back to 1978, when the Parks Department created borough coordinators. They were from the ranks of chiefs, and the union officers took those positions, and we were forevermore at a disadvantage because we had them as managers. 

It was supposed to quote, "solve the problems," the transition from winter to summer. It hasn't done that.

Right, because a lot of the workers are seasonal, so each year, you have to get hired back. How do you believe these union officers control that? 

The lifeguard test and CPR test. Those are the two things that you need to be a certified lifeguard. And they control that. They've been using that lifeguard school as a way to wield their power.

There have been some positive changes that have occurred recently, but the continual recommendation of having outside monitors monitor the testing of lifeguards hasn't happened. So what you see here [motions to the beach] is a union action. There should be more lifeguard chairs and more lifeguards.

Today, if we look at the water, there are rip currents and the surf's up. So those red flags connotate a closed beach. So if you see a red flag, you know you have to head to a lifeguard-protected beach.

But if there were more lifeguards, more beaches would be open, it'd be less congested and there'd be less people that a single lifeguard would have to be monitoring.

Yes, and you know, traditionally a lifeguard has a partner because you have to go to lunch. If you're going in for a rescue, if there's two people drowning, or for all those reasons, you need to have two or three lifeguards on each chair.

And these lifeguards are used to having three people per chair. This is an area where there's a lot of rescues. They might have two people per chair now, but normally there would be three. And there's a lot of people in the water. I have to say this union-run operation that closes a lot of beaches and limits the amount of manpower creates drowning situations on closed beaches.

And that's something that is really upsetting for me, because we wanna prevent drownings. 

So what's in it for them? Why is union leadership so opposed to hiring more lifeguards?

I think it's power and money. I think money is their God and power. That's what's in it for them. But they have the money. It's gotta be the power. It's gotta be the power.

Is it still a good job, despite this situation? 

Lifeguards loved working here.I would call them gods, not guards. And that's what I started saying: "You guys are gods because you are making the difference between life and death every day." But they were stressed out. And so many of them left as well.

Are you already working this summer? 

I'm not on the job. They told me I have to wait for CPR because last year, I took a medical leave. Okay. And it has been very stressful for me, fighting this corruption. They don't have a good program for recruitment in terms of having these certification classes. 

There are other municipalities that are successful at doing it their way. Jones Beach, Long Beach. The National Park Service. So like, there's success in New York state. But it's not in New York City. New York City's open water is not being run efficiently. I want a junior lifeguard program. Give me a junior lifeguard program. You do a junior lifeguard program, and you start it in the pools, and you don't have a shortage like this. 

How great would that be if you have kids that now look up to the lifeguards, wanna be lifeguards? 

Why don't you get discouraged? 

How I look at it, there's so many terrible things happening in the world. I still am standing, I still love to swim. I still love the outdoors. I love, love life. There's some people that don't have that. My friend Barbara, I don't wanna cry, but she died of leukemia, and she fought for 11 years, and she couldn't go in the ocean anymore.

And that broke my heart. And while she was fighting her for her life, I was fighting this. And I said, "If she can fight for her life, I can fight this." That's the way I look at it—this is something that's life and death for people that visit the beaches and the pools.

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