Around 20 public swimming pools may only partially open this summer, whilst around 500 licensed private pools will not open as scheduled this month, owing to a shortage of lifeguards, the Hong Kong Recreation and Sports Professionals General Union (HKRSPGU) said at a Tuesday press conference.

Hong Kong Recreation and Sports Professionals General Union
Hong Kong Recreation and Sports Professionals General Union said that around 20 public swimming pools may only partially open. Photo : Mandy Cheng.

There are 45 public swimming pools and 1,371 licensed private pools in Hong Kong, according to the union. The HKRSPGU said that 20 pools had contacted swimming training institutions to warn that some of their facilities will not open for public use this summer.

In response to HKFP’s enquiries, the Leisure and Cultural Services Department (LCSD) said that 24 public swimming pools had fully reopened and 17 had partially reopened, but it did not comment on the situation during the looming summer season. It said that they had introduced different measures to tackle the lifeguard shortage, including increasing the salary of seasonal lifeguards and recruiting lifeguards on two-year contracts.

“In recent years, the number of swimming pools in private development projects, hotels, and theme parks has continued to increase, leading to a growing demand for lifeguards in the market. In addition, public swimming pools and beaches were temporarily closed for a long period of time due to the impact of the pandemic, resulting in the suspension of drowning rescue training,  courses and exams, which seriously affected the supply of qualified lifeguards,” the spokesperson said.

Expired qualifications

John Yiu, the vice-president of the HK Professional Swimming Instructors and Trainers General Union said during the press briefing that “during the three years of the pandemic, many [lifeguards’] life-saving qualifications expired… there was no swimming pool partially open for the lifeguards to do their exams.”

Yiu added that many lifeguards left the industry during the Covid-19 pool closures: “When [they] changed their careers and found a job that can sustain their living, are there any incentives for them to go back?”

According to a paper submitted by the LCSD to the legislature, the LCSD needs to employ more than 600 seasonal lifeguards between April and May. As of May 1, there were 240 lifeguards reporting for duty, including full-time seasonal lifeguards and contracted full-year lifeguards.

cross harbour race swim october 2022
A lifeguard watches as swimmers participate in Hong Kong’s cross harbour race on October 23, 2022. File photo: Lea Mok/HKFP.

“There has been a consistent decrease in both the number of applications received for seasonal lifeguards and the number of people employed,” the LCSD said.

A.I. system

To tackle the manpower shortage, the HKRSPGU suggested that the government could provide free life-saving courses to encourage recruitment.

“There should be a long-term plan, to ensure the professionalisation of the lifeguard industry,” Yiu said. He added that the LCSD could provide on-the-job training including water quality control and activity management. Lifeguards could be provided with a path to become managers of swimming centres, he said.

In response to the lifeguard shortage, LCSD chief Vincent Yiu told the legislature last Monday that they plan to test a new Artificial Intelligence (A.I.) drowning detection system at Kwun Tong Swimming Pool over the next few months. The system is designed to alert lifeguards and assess the possibility of drowning. The Hong Kong and Kowloon Lifeguards’ Union said on their Facebook page that the A.I. system would only work after accidents happen, and the lack of life-savers was being ignored by the government.

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Mandy Cheng is a reporter at Hong Kong Free Press. Previously, she worked at Ming Pao, focusing on investigative and feature reporting. She also contributed to Cable TV and others.