In August 2008, months after lifeguards were cut from Pennsylvania state parks, 4-year-old Brent Bathory of Red Lion drowned while playing in the water at Gifford Pinchot State Park in Warrington Township.
The little boy's death occurred outside of a designated swimming area at a rocky spot called Boulder Point, where swimming is prohibited, about a mile from the nearest beach where a lifeguard would have been stationed if they hadn't been cut earlier in the year.
Whether the drowning could have been prevented is one of several disagreements to be hashed out between a state legislator who wants to bring back the lifeguards and the Department of Conservation of Natural Resources, which made the decision to save about $800,000 per year by axing the positions; they said the change was made because of a shortage in qualified lifeguards and the desire to operate longer hours.
Sen. Rob Teplitz, D-York/Dauphin, has introduced legislation to reinstate certified lifeguards at 58 public beaches in Pennsylvania state parks. On Thursday, Senate Bill 1419 was assigned to the Environmental Resources and Energy Committee. It would require lifeguards during peak hours but allow parks to offer some off-peak swimming hours without a lifeguard.
Teplitz in 2008 was part of a state Department of the Auditor General's report that questioned whether the monetary savings was worth the risk, recommending DCNR reconsider.
He said swimmers are at risk, and even deaths under circumstances such as Brent Bathory's — in which swimmers are outside the guarded areas — could be prevented. He said having a lifeguard present somewhere is safer than not having a lifeguard anywhere.
Park responds: Pinchot's park operations manager, Bob Deffner, said an internal analysis shows the number of drowning incidents over the years is about the same with or without lifeguards.
The decision to begin phasing out lifeguards started 15 years ago, during Gov. Tom Ridge's administration, but the final phase concluded in 2008, said DCNR spokeswoman Christina Novak.
In the past 15 years, there have been three drowning deaths at park beaches — two at beaches where lifeguards were on duty and one at an unguarded beach.
The Pinchot drowning is not included in the analysis because it was outside of a legal swimming area, she said.
The only drowning at a swimming area since the 2008 implementation came that July, during the first summer there were no lifeguards at Pine Grove Furnace State Park, she said.
The next year, lifeguards were brought back into Pine Grove because the swimming area, part of an old quarry, is very deep and cold, she said.
There was also a drowning there 30 years ago, despite lifeguards being present at the time, Novak said.
Natural swimming: While lifeguards are required at all state park swimming pools, Teplitz said there are risks inherent to swimming in natural areas.
"The lakes are dark and cloudy and there are objects in the water," he said. "There are drop-offs. There are sea creatures and changing depths and changing currents. These are natural waters."
He said he understands why the DCNR is "trying to make the best of a bad situation, but I'm just not persuaded by it.
"Parents are not necessarily the best people, or shouldn't be the only people, to guard their children. Not every parent can swim or have rescue skills, and they may panic."
Longer hours: Deffner said the shift away from lifeguards has allowed the swimming area at Pinchot, the only state park swimming area in York, to stay open longer.
When lifeguards were required, swimming was permitted 11 a.m. to 7 p.m., and the area was only open from Memorial Day until August, when the lifeguards were hardest to find.
The beach at Pinchot opened May 10 this year, and it will be open until September, he said.
Open-swim runs 8 a.m. through dusk, which is after 8 p.m. during the swimming season.
"People can come in when their schedule permits it instead of when the lifeguard is on duty," he said.
The beaches are posted with warnings about the lack of lifeguards and general safety rules, he said.
"We have noticed that parents and caregivers are more vigilant in watching their children and people have a tendency to watch each other in their own parties," he said.
Rangers stop by the beach while performing their rounds.
When it's busy, they stay for hours because there are so many people there, he said.
Novak said rangers are required to complete the American Red Cross CPR course or a similar course for professional rescuers.
On busy days, sometimes twice per day, rangers order everyone out of the water for a "safety break," during which "we ask people to make sure everyone in their party is OK and ask them to rehydrate," Deffner said.
"We have a system that works, and so that's adequate," he said. "The currents here under normal conditions are not an issue. If we have cloudy water ... after a storm, we close the beach for turbidity and potential bacteria."
Every year, between 40,000 and 60,000 people swim at Pinchot, he said.
Kennedy Koons of Windsor was among the parents enjoying the beach at Pinchot on a recent Friday afternoon.
She said those who want to swim in extended hours without a lifeguard should be able to do so but, as a parent, she wishes there were supervision on the beach.
"Watching two kids at once is a lot of work, and you can't always keep an eye on what everyone is doing," she said. "It's not going to hurt to have an extra set of eyes, you know? You turn your back for a second and you never know what can happen."
— Reach Christina Kauffman at firstname.lastname@example.org.