British Columbia

Despite packed beaches and ocean swimmers, Vancouver lifeguards remain off the job

As the weather warms and people flock to the ocean, some are questioning the safety of Vancouver beaches with lifeguards still sidelined due to COVID-19 concerns.

Vancouver Police and Canadian Coast Guard are now responding to incidents usually handled by city lifeguards

An empty lifeguard chair at Sunset Beach, Vancouver. (CBC)

When Vancouver Police descended on West Point Grey's Jericho Beach last Sunday, Andrea McCallum thought she had stumbled into a major police incident.

The past president of the Vancouver Open Water Swim Association was going for a swim with friends when five police vehicles — sirens blaring and lights flashing — sped onto the beach, followed by a helicopter. 

"One of the vehicles drove right on the sand and the two officers went running to the shore looking for something," she said. "And then one of the vehicles went tearing with lights flashing along the path to Locarno [Beach]."

According to McCallum, one of the officers said a 911 call had come in from a mother reporting her child had gone missing while playing near the water. Unfortunately the woman misidentified which beach she was at.

The child was found safe, but that wasn't the end of the ordeal. McCallum said one of the Vancouver Police Department vehicles got stuck in the sand and needed a tow truck to pull it out.

A packed Kitsilano Beach on May 11, 2020. (Submitted by Jeff Cutler)

She believes had lifeguards been on duty, the entire incident and expense could have been avoided.

"I actually wrote all the city councillors and park board commissioners to ask if this is how this summer's going to go with no lifeguards," she said.

"It's just my impression it's getting more and more dangerous and lifeguards on the beach would help solve that problem."

Normally Vancouver beaches are staffed starting the Victoria Day long weekend. 

But because of COVID-19 concerns, lifeguards have yet to be called back to work, despite how busy the beaches have become as people seek outdoor space to physically distance.

The City of Vancouver says it is in the process of reviewing a report from Lifesaving Society Canada recommending measures for lifeguard safety during the COVID-19 pandemic.

A Canadian Coast Guard hovercraft was called to English Bay when a missing swimmer was reported to 911 on Monday. (Submitted by Quinn Peters)

On Monday, the Canadian Coast Guard was called to English Bay after someone phoned 911 to report a swimmer had disappeared.

Witnesses watched as a coast guard hovercraft searched the water along with at least two zodiacs.

As it turns out, it was a false alarm, and the missing man was in fact a Vancouver lifeguard out for a swim. 

"There was a search for someone but when police were on scene at the beach, the swimmer came out and spoke with police saying he was just deep diving," said VPD Const. Tania Visintin. "There was a bit of miscommunication between all the agencies involved."

Two zodiacs involved in the search for a missing swimmer in English Bay on Monday. As it turns out, the report was a false alarm. (Submitted by Quinn Peters)

The union representing Vancouver lifeguards says it's troubling the city isn't moving faster to get lifeguards back on duty. 

"The beaches are full today and they'll continue to be as the season warms up," said Andrew Ledger, president of CUPE 1004. 

"We know the citizens of Vancouver rely on having their beaches monitored by our lifeguards. And it's not safe to put the public at risk by not having having them out there."

McCallum says she's noticed an increase in ocean swimmers, including some who are venturing into shipping lanes or swimming across English Bay between Kitsilano and Sunset beaches. Both are illegal and something lifeguards frequently prevent.

She worries thing will become even more chaotic if the Vancouver Park Board allows alcohol on beaches — an idea promoted by some city councillors — without lifeguards there to keep eye on things.

"It's becoming like the wild west," she said.

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