The Unisex Change Room Debate – the view of a Lifeguard

A couple of days ago, the public was made aware that the City of Edmonton was planning on having a unisex, or communal, change room at the new Queen Elizabeth outdoor pool.  This was something I had heard about almost a year ago.  The city believes that this is the way of the future, and is planning on building all future facilities in this manner.  The theory is that more and more people use a family change room, and that a single, larger change room is more cost effective than 2 or 3 separate change rooms.

While my full time job is working in IT, I still work as a lifeguard at a City of Edmonton pool.  It was the job that got me through college, and got me to the position I am in now.  I still do enjoy the job, and the environment of working in a pool, so I still do it once a week.  Because of my background in actually lifeguarding a pool, I feel that I can share a first hand perspective and opinion on this matter.

To put is simply, I think this is a bad idea.  In fact, I think this might be one of the most short sighted ideas the City Administration has had in recent years, and that is saying something. Usually the people who plan these types of facilities have never worked in one, and often plan what is best on paper, not what is the best option for both the patrons that use the facility, and the staff tasked with working there.  While I can see their idea in theory, as someone who works in a pool in practice, this is a recipe for disaster.

The pool that I work at has three change rooms.  It has a full change room for males and females, as well as a large family change room.  The family change room has four changing stalls, two showers, and three private bathrooms. as well as lockers.  In terms of pure size I would say it is about 1/2 the size of the changing area of our actual men’s and women’s change rooms.  Our family change room use is restricted for families, which we define as parents with children.  So a father can take his two kids into the family change room, or a mother can take her young son.  If there is say, a father and an 8 year old son, we prefer they use the men’s change room, but it is not a requirement.  The family change room may also be used by people with limited mobility, or people with disabilities.  We ask that everyone else use either the men’s or women’s change room.  It’s a fairly simple solution that I personally believe has worked very well over the years.

There are many reasons why I do not believe that unisex change rooms can work.  The first is simple math.  for an evening public swim during the summer at the pool I work at, we can get as many as 350 people who are trying to get into the pool at the same time.  These range from families with young children, to groups of teenagers.  This is a scenario that happens nearly every night for two full months during July and August.  Trying to push 350 people through a single change room with roughly twenty stalls would lead to chaos.  You will have shy teenagers who want to change by themselves, so a stall meant for five people might only have one in it.  While this is happening you will have families who are stuck waiting for a changing stall to open.  It can be a challenge getting 350 people through the cashiers and change room at a pool that does not have this configuration, I cannot imagine the difficulty of this scenario.

The second reason is one that I believe will become an issue in about 10 minutes after the pool opens.  Groups of teenagers will cause continual frustration.  All it will take is one 14 year old boy exposing himself to everyone in the change room to completely ruin the experience for everyone.  And believe me, it will happen.  What happens when a 14 year old exposes himself, as a joke, to a girl around his age, or someone younger?  This has disaster written all over it, and leads into my fourth point later on.

A third reason, and one that I look forward to the least, are groups of people changing together who should not be changing together, and the consequences of that.  I think many of us would agree that two 15 year old children who are dating, should not be changing together in a stall in a unisex change room.  There is also the issue of people of any age engaging in sexual activities in those stalls.  I know this will happen because it is something that we have to deal with on a semi-regular basis at the pool that I work at.  A young teenage couple will change in the family change room so they can engage in certain activities.  Or, on more rare occasions, adult couples will do the same.  I have caught more than my fair share of teenagers doing things they should not be doing in the family change room over the years.  This is a problem that would likely multiply ten fold in a unisex change room only configuration.

The second and third points both lead into my fourth, which is the effect on pool staffing.  Because of the issues that the second and third points will cause, lifeguards will likely be required to patrol the change room more often.  With recent city budgetary difficulties, we have seen staffing at my pool reduced, which makes it harder to do those checks.  When there is an incident in a city facility, the staff members involved in dealing with that incident are required to do some paperwork via filling out incident reports.  This means that the staff member is either unavailable to resume normal duties until that report is complete, or the report has to be done after their regular shift is over, which is paid time.  To have locker room checks at the frequency that would be required in a unisex change room format would likely require an additional staff member working than what we would normally see, which will mean the pool needs a larger budget, which is another burden on the city budget, and at the end, the tax payer.  Incidents will be more frequent, and you will likely run into very undesirable scenarios as a staff member.  As a male lifeguard I have run into multiple awkward situations with teenage girls in the family change room, the same can be said for my female co-workers.  This will add to the stress of an already stressful job as a lifeguard, and could turn people away from the job altogether.

I think that the concept of a family change room is a fantastic idea.  When utilized properly, the family change room at my facility is an excellent option for people to use.  I believe that every facility should have a family changing area, but not at the expense of a men’s and women’s change rooms.  They are a useful option, but not the only option.

I absolutely see the ideas behind having a single, unisex change room at a swimming pool facility.  However, in the opinion of this lifeguard, someone who works on the ground in a pool on a regular basis, the potential for problems simply outweigh any possible benefits.

[Read] – iNews880 article (identical article can also be found at 630ched.com)

[Read] – Global Edmonton Article

[Read] – Edmonton Journal Article