MILWAUKEE — University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee student Luke Kempka and his friend Bella decided to hit up Bradford Beach before making their way to the Deer District Friday night to watch the Milwaukee Bucks take on the Boston Celtics in Game 6 of the second round of the NBA Playoffs.
“Even though it’s a little cooler today," Kempka said. "[We're] always out here for the good weather though."
He went into the water, but not very far, or for very long.
“Up to my knees, but that was about it though," Kempka said. "Yes, very cold. Very cold.”
For the third straight year, Milwaukee County is unable to staff lifeguards at Bradford Beach.
In 2020, pools were closed because of COVID-19, and while people went to the beach, they were technically closed too — without lifeguards.
That made the shortage of lifeguards nationwide worse, according to Jim Tarantino, deputy director of Milwaukee County Parks.
“The pandemic really did make things a lot harder to be able to retain a lifeguard core," Tarantino said. "The annual chain of getting training and getting exposure to guarding on Lake Michigan was broke in the summer of 2020, and we can only bring it back by bringing on new recruits and getting them exposure to the lake.”
Milwaukee County has worked to incentivize more people to apply and train to be a lifeguard.
It raised the minimum starting wage for new lifeguards to $15.82 an hour, up $3 from 2021.
The county got some new recruits, but not nearly as many as they need.
“Ideally we would have over 200 lifeguards to be able to staff all of the pools, and guard Bradford Beach but unfortunately we only had about 20 to 25 returning lifeguards from last year, and only 40 new recruits, so we’re falling very far behind where we need to be with about only 60 lifeguards heading into the summer," Tarantino added.
That’s where the Milwaukee Beach Ambassadors step in.
The ambassador program started in 2021, and if you head to the beach this summer, you’ll likely see them walking up and down the shoreline, doing everything they can to educate swimmers about water conditions.
But, they’re not a replacement for lifeguards.
“They are very much looking forward to talking to people on the beach about, maybe, life jacket fit, or if we know it’s going to be a day like today, where the rip currents are going to be particularly bad, we may say, ‘Hey, there’s rip currents. Do you know what those are? If you’re caught in one do you know what to do?'" said Teresa Coronado of the Milwaukee Community Sailing Center. "But, in any emergency, our ambassadors are just citizens on the beach, so they’ll call 911 just like anyone else.”
While the county said it could take a few years to truly get to a point where lifeguards are back on Bradford Beach, Tarantino said they’re doing everything they can to stress the importance of safety.
“We want people to enjoy the water, and enjoy Lake Michigan and not be afraid of it, but treat it with the respect that it deserves," Tarantino said.
Milwaukee County is hiring lifeguards through July, but applicants have to have been previously trained as a lifeguard to be considered.