OCEAN CITY – With the Fourth of July now in the rear-view mirror, a mid-season check with the Ocean City Beach Patrol this week revealed a busy start to the season with staffed stands further apart because of staffing issues.
The Ocean City Beach Patrol (OCBP) officially began manning stands from the Inlet to the Delaware line on Memorial Day weekend.
Now, about five weeks into the season, the OCBP still faces staffing challenges, but there should be no noticeable coverage on the beach, according to Captain Butch Arbin, who is leading the department for his 50th season.
Arbin said the first few weeks have been busy for his command staff and available complement of Surf Rescue Technicians (SRTs), or lifeguards, manning the beach. However, while recruitment challenges remain, there is no reason for concern for resident and visitor beachgoers.
“The season is going well,” he said. “We had a very busy start to this season with rescues the first few weeks.”
A look at some of the stats in the OCBP’s weekly bulletin seem to bear that out.
According to the most recent bulletin for the week ending June 28, there were nearly 10,000 preventions, 227 rescues and 110 calls for minor first-aid. There were 13 ambulance calls and five police calls during the week ending on June 28, along with 34 lost-and-found interventions.
While the OCBP has a high rate of return with veteran SRTs, many of whom are educators, the department is recruiting practically all year long for new staffers. OCBP command staff go out to colleges and universities around the region throughout the year recruiting potential candidates.
Of course, there are rigid physical standards for being an SRT, which shrinks the potential labor pool somewhat.
The OCBP holds rigorous physical testing throughout the spring and early summer for potential candidates, who are then put through the Surf Rescue Academy. Arbin said the OCBP had fewer qualified candidates this year than in recent years.
“We graduated 25 rookie SRTs from the Surf Rescue Academy,” he said. “We started with 28 but a few dropped out by their choice. That’s compared to 45 in 2021 and 66 in 2020. We have already begun our recruiting for 2023 and have our first test on August 13.”
In addition, the OCBP is always re-qualifying and re-certifying its returning veteran SRTs, a process Arbin said is nearing its conclusion.
“We are completing our veteran re-qualification run and swim and re-certification for veterans this coming Saturday,” he said. “We began on June 28 and rotate small groups into the process until everyone is completed for another year. I personally time each person each year so I can confirm that everyone remains qualified physically.”
Again, while many veteran SRTs return year after year, recruiting and retaining rookie lifeguards remains challenging.
As a result, the OCBP will man fewer actual lifeguard stands this summer, although the average beachgoer might not notice.
“We will have 85 stands along the beach at full staffing for this season,” he said. “With 85 stands, the average distance between stands will be 11-and-a-half feet further apart than last season.”
Another staffing challenge for the OCBP is the number of SRTs that are working for the department part-time this year.
Some are first responders and other professionals, but others are taking other seasonal summer jobs, reducing their availability to work on the beach.
“We have a high number of returning staff,” he said. “Interestingly, more of our staff are requesting to work part-time. For those who have other careers like the Maryland State Police, Bel Air Police, Anne Arundel Fire Company, for example, we understand that they can only work part-time.
However, we have people who are in Ocean City working seasonally and have taken other jobs as the primary and working for us when available. This is a big change over most past years.”
Another staffing challenge has been a lack of affordable seasonal workforce housing, an issue that is plaguing other city departments and the private sector.
The OCBP does have some affordable seasonal housing available at locations downtown, but not enough to meet the demand. The OCBP does offer a program in which the department helps pay early month rent and security deposits and other upfront costs for its staffers, who pay it back incrementally through modest payroll deductions throughout the season.
Arbin said if watching the water and protecting beachgoers and swimmers wasn’t enough of a task for his undermanned crews, they have other chores to accomplish each day.
“The other big issue is the number of dogs between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m., and after 5:30 p.m.,” he said. “We have patrols out from 8 a.m. to 8 p.m., and if they see an ordinance infraction, they must address it. People just do not care to follow the law regarding dogs.”