Lifeguards Wave Off Safety Recommendations From City Investigators

Five months after the city Department of Investigation suggested 13 ways to clean up the Parks Department’s Lifeguard Division, none of them have been fully acted upon as beach season is upon us.

May 26, 2022 Reuven Blau, THE CITY
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In December 2021, the city’s investigative agency found the Department of Parks and Recreation’s lifeguard division has been drowning in mismanagement and dysfunction for decades.

According to the 20-page Department of Investigation report, the Parks Department allows the unit overseeing lifeguards to operate as its own fiefdom, with poor oversight.

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In response, DOI at the time made “13 recommendations to correct deficiencies in the management and operation of the Lifeguard Division.” Those included improving its disciplinary system for lifeguards charged with breaking rules and assigning “intermediate managers” to “enhance supervision” of the unit.

The DOI also recommended that “experienced, intermediate managers” be used to deploy staff to dangerous areas.

More than five months later, none of the suggested reforms have been fully implemented as the Memorial Day weekend start of beach season is only days away.

At stake is the potential safety of more than 13 million people who visit the city’s 14 miles of beach and 53 pools annually.

“We are still mourning and we are very bitter about the fact that people’s safety is not the number one priority for the city,” said Leszek Wiszowaty, whose 18-year-old son, Matthew, drowned in the turbulent waters of Queens’ Rockaway Beach last summer.

Staff discipline and deployment decisions are still largely controlled by the powerful union representing lifeguards, according to Janet Fash, a chief lifeguard assigned to the Rockaway Beach station.

“It’s business as usual,” Fash said. “It’s like a summer camp. They are over-deployed in some areas and under-deployed in others.”

Parks officials maintain they are working to implement the recommended reforms.

“With new leadership at the head of our agency in place — Commissioners Sue Donoghue and [her deputy] Iris Rodriguez Rosa — we continue to work cooperatively with DOI to address the report’s recommendations,” said Parks spokesperson Crystal Howard, who declined to detail what steps have been taken so far.

Leszek Wiszowaty on May 24, 2022.
Ben Fractenberg/THE CITY

Beach boss

The DOI report was triggered by a June 2020 New York magazine investigation into the powerful Peter Stein, the head of the influential NYC Lifeguard Supervisors Local 508 of District Council 37.

Stein, whose tenure in the unit dates back 40 years, essentially controls where lifeguards are placed, according to the report. That has meant some lifeguards with minimal experience are assigned to areas with notoriously turbulent waters while those with years on the job and close ties to the union land cushy gigs away from dangerous areas.

In 2021, Stein refused to answer questions from DOI probers when they were digging into the troubled lifeguard unit, according to the report.

Instead, he asked why the coverage wasn’t focusing on how city lifeguards protect people from drowning in city pools and beaches.

“This report provides an answer,” DOI responded, “the structure, history, and culture of the Lifeguard Division reveals systemic dysfunction in its management and accountability.”

For years, Stein served as union president while also running the lifeguard division. In the mid-1990s, after pressure from the city he took the union post which has full leave from actual lifeguard work.

But he is still paid for the chief lifeguard role and earned $178,946 in 2020, according to SeeThroughNY, which tracks municipal salaries.

Stein did not respond to a call seeking comment.

The sands of time

The lifeguard unit has a history of ignoring DOI recommendations.

DOI also found major issues with the lifeguard division in the 1990s. That report “found mismanagement, union interference, and deficient recordkeeping.”

At the time, DOI recommended “changes to the lifeguard supervisory structure” and improved oversight of the division.

“However, these recommendations were not fully implemented,” the 2021 DOI report noted.

A DOI spokesperson said this week the agency is in “regular contact and working collaboratively with the Parks Department” about the latest reform recommendations.

“We understand that Parks is actively working toward implementation of our recommendations,” said DOI spokesperson Diane Struzzi.

That’s not enough for Wiszowaty.

His son was weeks away from his first semester at Cooper Union, when he was pulled out of the water near Shore Front Parkway and Beach 101st Street on Aug. 6, 2021.

The area of the beach had been blocked off to swimmers because beach erosion makes it impossible to place a lifeguard chair far back enough to create the necessary visibility, according to the Parks Department.

An empty lifeguard station near Beach 96th Street in The Rockaways, Aug. 10, 2021.
Aria Velasquez/THE CITY

But his family and witnesses say the red flags were sparsely placed around the beach and contend the area still should have been monitored by lifeguards.

“This was a preventable incident,” Wiszowaty, of Maspeth, told THE CITY. “Because of the type of person Matthew was, everyone who knew him could not believe that he would enter a restricted area.”

Fash, the chief lifeguard at the beach, called the teen’s death “devastating” and agreed that it could have been prevented.

The Rockaways should deploy so-called “ocean supervisors” who can move lifeguards and other staff to high-traffic areas when the water becomes turbulent, she said.

“That day he drowned,” she recalled, “I called it ‘drowning water.’”

And unlike other municipalities, city lifeguards aren’t equipped with ATVs or Zodiac rescue boats, she said.

“We are not using 21st century tools,” she said.

‘I worried everyday’

As for operational changes, the DOI report acknowledged some would require tough negotiations with the powerful union. Lifeguards and their immediate supervisors are still working under an expired collective bargaining agreement that was in place when the DOI report was published.

That means that the department can’t hire someone outside of the chain of command to serve as disciplinary hearing officers. The management structure and disciplinary process are also mandatory subjects of collective bargaining that must be negotiated with the union.

“It’s still a new administration and a brand new senior team,” said former Parks Commissioner Adrian Benepe who served from 2002 to 2012 under Mayor Mike Bloomberg. “They are probably super focused on opening the beaches and the pools a month later.”

He noted the majority of the staff is seasonal teenagers, whom the city has long struggled to recruit.

“I never had a good summer,” he said. “From Memorial Day until Labor Day I worried every day someone would die on our watch.”

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