Lewes plans for unguarded public beaches

Signage, communication vital to summer safety
May 20, 2022

It’s a decision the City of Lewes is not taking lightly. Officials have already talked in detail about the hazards related to unguarded beaches now that it is going to be the way of life at Lewes’ public beaches this summer. Diving into shallow water, timing of response systems and language barriers are just some of the concerns officials are talking about and working to resolve.

City Manager Ann Marie Townshend said unguarded beaches were not something she thought was possible a month ago. Following a slight reduction in the force last year, officials raised the hourly rate for lifeguards to $16 per hour and believed they began recruiting early enough to avoid any shortfalls in staffing. The city was struggling to hire in the maintenance department as well, and officials knew other sectors were finding it difficult to recruit employees too. They did not anticipate getting to May with only five applications on file and a lack of experience among the applicants. Exacerbating the issue was Elisha Hartman’s decision to not return as captain, a decision that was made in April.

Townshend spoke highly of Hartman, but said the city was caught off guard by the timing of her decision. Hartman was an extremely talented lifeguard who was well respected as a leader, Townshend said, but it was her time to move on to another opportunity. 

The city is now working to ensure the necessary steps are being taken to inform all visitors of the situation. Assistant City Manager Ellen Lorraine McCabe and Parks and Marina Administrator Janet Reeves are producing signs to be prominently displayed in both English and Spanish on parking meters, restrooms and the parking enforcement building in addition to the beach.

The Lewes Fire Department has been in touch with the city about ensuring effective communication among first response teams. Most people have cellphones, but how many carry their phones with them all the time? And how many will take their phones to the beach? Should an emergency situation arise, emergency services will no longer be contacted by a lifeguard, so the city is trying to figure out the best way to relay a distress call. Parking enforcement officials could be a solution to an effective relay, Townshend said.

Townshend also talked about email blasts being sent out to residents. Emails could contain information about water conditions, safety tips for an unguarded beach or the possible protocols for an emergency situation. 

Outgoing Mayor Ted Becker said the public beaches have always been guarded. Some people believe the wages being offered are too low when compared to other jobs in the area. Others believe the job of lifeguards has morphed into a babysitting service.

“Lifeguards are here for their job, not to save your children. Your children are your own responsibility, and you should be out here watching them and make sure that they’re OK,” said Brittany Jennings of New Castle. “My daughter is 2 years old. She will be with me every time we come down, and she’ll have a life jacket on, like I believe most children should.”

Jennings said Lewes is more of a family beach than other beaches in the area, and she does not see the volatile water conditions present at other beaches.

Supporting her belief in calm-water conditions is chief of emergency medicine at Beebe Healthcare Dr. Paul Cowan, who says the ER receives far more patients from ocean beaches than from bay beaches like Lewes. Cowan, who studies water injuries, said that while the shallow water presents a concern for diving, the calm waters actually lessen the risks of other water hazards. Rip tides and strong currents seen at other beaches are a result of the larger wave activity, which the bay does not experience, he said. 

Cowan expressed strong confidence in the dispatchers who would receive distress calls from people calling 911. While lifeguards have more experience communicating with dispatchers, Cowan said, 911 dispatchers are skilled at calming people down in even the most stressed situations and gathering the pertinent information to contact the correct level of response. The Lewes Fire Department stands ready to handle any minor injuries that could occur, while more major injuries would bring in county paramedics, he said.

Moving forward, Lewes is aiming to employ a full force of lifeguards for the 2023 summer season and officialshave discussed reaching out to other municipalities that have rejected applicants to establish a funnel system to attract eligible candidates. In the meantime, officials will notify the public in as many ways as possible about beach conditions throughout the 2022 season. While it is unlikely guards will become available in 2022, nothing has been totally ruled out by the city. Following the news breaking, a few private lifeguard companies reached out to the city and offered to help find a solution for the upcoming summer. 

Incoming Mayor Andrew Williams said this wasn’t a situation the city was expecting to face, but he is open to any and all solutions, including hiring an outside agency to fulfill lifeguard services. Williams believes if the city were to utilize outside help, the recruiting and training aspect would improve, but the city would be ceding certain aspects of control to the outside agency. 

Anyone interested in becoming a Lewes lifeguard should contact Parks and Marina Administrator Janet Reeves at or City Manager Ann Marie Townshend at


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