What to Know
- Lifeguards have been cut at all state parks, including Squantz Pond, where 20 people have drowned in the last 15 years
- The park implemented new outreach programs, but Spanish-language outreach has fallen off
- A supervisor for the pond said he didn't think multilingual outreach about the cuts was necessary, saying the signs were universal
New Yorkers heading to a popular lake in Connecticut with a staggering history of drowning deaths are facing increased danger this summer – and NBC 4 New York discovered they may not know it.
As part of state budget cuts enacted this month, lifeguards have been eliminated two days a week at all Connecticut state parks, including Squantz Pond in New Fairfield, where 15 people have drowned in the past 20 years. But NBC 4 New York found the swimming risk is not being communicated to Spanish-speaking visitors who flock to the park.
It’s a dangerous oversight, says John Hodge, a former first selectman for New Fairfield who pushed the state to enact sweeping safety changes in 2007 after a rash of drowning deaths.
"By and large it’s not Connecticut residents who’ve drowned in this pond. It’s New Yorkers," he said. “We’re so close to the New York border. … It’s mostly New Yorkers drowning there.”
Signs and fliers in Spanish and English, and a bilingual interpreter, were among the safety changes credited with reducing drowning deaths. Only two people have died in the park since 2007.
"There’s no doubt that the procedures that were put into place worked,” said Hodge.
But this week, on the first day at the park without lifeguards on duty, NBC 4 New York found Spanish-language outreach to be nonexistent. The only sign in Spanish near the beach was installed years ago and reads: "Our beautiful lake on average has one death each summer. Please don’t be the ONE.”
Squantz Pond State Park Supervisor John Guglielmoni said he didn’t think Spanish-language outreach about lifeguard cuts was necessary.
"I think everybody pretty much gets the message. The flag key really is universal.” But the key, on the empty lifeguard stand, is written in English.
When pressed on safety outreach for visitors who don’t read or speak English, Guglielmoni said it really wasn’t a concern.
"Amazingly, I haven’t run across them. I have to be honest. I’ve been able to communicate with every group of people that have come to this park, of all different ethnicities and backgrounds," Guglielmoni. "If there’s a certain individual who can’t [speak English] there’s always someone in their group who can.”
But NBC 4 New York found it wasn’t that simple. Some visitors didn’t speak English, and some who were bilingual hadn’t seen the signs or flag key.
New Fairfield First Selectman Susan Chapman has been fighting to have the lifeguards reinstated. She’s especially worried about not having lifeguards on Monday and Tuesday, which are the lowest attendance days at the park.
“Of the seven weekday drownings, five of them were on a Monday or a Tuesday,” said Chapman. “So the state, they’re determining Monday and Tuesday as low risk days, but for Squantz Pond, Monday and Tuesday are not low Risk days.”
She also questions the cost savings.
"Quite frankly, how much would lifeguards on two days a week for the next eight weeks – how much is that really going to cost?" Chapman asked. "Is the state of Connecticut really going to achieve any savings at this park not having any lifeguards here Monday and Tuesday?"
NBC 4 New York found the savings don’t add up to much. The top wage for a state lifeguard is $14 per hour. The cost of two lifeguards working eight-hour shifts on Monday and Tuesday until Labor Day would be $3,584.