Queensland lifeguard shortage leaves beaches unpatrolled during school holidays

A shortage of lifeguards has left some Queensland beaches exposed during the school holidays, prompting warnings of a potential lack of staff during summer.

The problems have been highlighted in the Mackay region, where patrols have been reduced on popular beaches.

The Mackay Regional Council has a contract with Surf Life Saving Queensland (SLSQ) to “supply an adequate number of trained lifeguards to adequately patrol the locations”.

Paid lifeguard positions in Mackay are seasonal and cover September until May.

Beaches at Bucasia, Eimeo, the Harbour, Lamberts and Sarina are normally patrolled during school holidays from 9am until 5pm.

But the council posted on social media earlier this week to inform the public some beaches would not be patrolled, causing confusion for locals and holiday-makers.

Services cut

SLSQ North Barrier branch lifeguard supervisor Mitchell Knight said the state was experiencing a shortage that was impacting regions including Townsville, Mackay, Wide Bay, Capricornia, Cairns and Sunshine Coast.

He said the service relied on casual lifeguards over the summer period, when more than 210 people were needed to fill contacted positions across the state. 

“Like all industries at the moment, we’re struggling with staff,” Mr Knight said.

“Our numbers are well below this quota.

“Due to staffing shortages we’re having to cut back on some of these services and patrol locations.”

A dozen surf life savers stand looking at the ocean at Sarina.
The Mackay region has 31 beaches but only five are patrolled.(Facebook)

No caps

Councils have contracts with a range of organisations, including SLSQ and Royal Life Saving Australia, and directly employ lifeguards for municipal pools.

Royal Life Saving Queensland executive director Paul Barry said there was a “workforce shortage across the entire aquatic industry” in North Queensland.

Royal Life Saving Queensland has beach lifeguard volunteers at Caloundra, Tallebudgera and Airlie Beach.

Surf Life Saving is the largest provider of paid lifeguards in Australia.

According to Mr Knight, SLSQ prioritises the busiest and highest risk areas in south-east Queensland.

He said there were five paid lifeguards in Mackay at the moment, including one from the Gold Coast.

“We don’t have a cap on the amount of positions available,” he said. 

“Ideally we would like to have eight to 10 lifeguards employed casually from this holiday period until May.”

A smiling lifesaver treads water next to his board in the ocean.
Ross Gee is a volunteer lifeguard and former councillor in Mackay.(Facebook)

‘No reassurance’

Long-time Mackay volunteer lifesaver Ross Gee questioned why a region built on beaches did not have a year-long, paid lifeguard position.

“Every time we head into a holiday period there’s no reassurance that our beaches will be patrolled,” he said.

“Mackay used to have a full-time lifeguard down at Mackay Beach, so at least one of the beaches had a trained first responder on the scene.

“Council should provide contacts to make it more viable for kids to actually look at lifeguarding as a career.”

Mr Knight said promoting the industry was key to addressing the shortages.

“Queensland’s biggest challenge at the moment is creating more awareness around paid lifeguard positions,” he said.

“We’ve got a lot of different pathways you can choose.

“It’s not so much a job anymore — it’s a career.”

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