WINTER'S HARD WORK PAYS OFF AT THE SOMA POOLS by Sara Courtney
A sneak peek at preparations for this summer’s swimming season.
The lazy days of summer are upon us, and what better way to spend them than at the community pool? For Maplewood and South Orange residents, it’s become an annual tradition, with parents surrounded by their kids splashing, learning to dive off the diving board for the first time, and begging for ice cream that will instantly melt in the heat. Friends bumping into old friends, neighbors floating next to neighbors, everybody in hats and squinting – does it get any better?
For most of us, pool season arrives when the heat index climbs from the 80s through the 90s and the air conditioning just can’t keep up. But long before official opening day, the pool unofficially opens to cleaning crews, plumbers, lifeguards-in-training, and town officials completing their final-touches walk through checklist. Behind all those lazy days of summer are busy people working diligently to get the pool ready for us to relax.
One of the first things to be done is engaging the numerous employees it takes to staff each pool. Peter Travers, the Director of Recreation and Cultural Affairs for South Orange, and Melissa Mancuso, the Recreation Department Director for Maplewood, both begin the hiring process for the pools months in advance – often in January and February – a full six months before guests dip their toes.
“In preparing for the pool season, from a staffing standpoint, we reach out to our pool management team from the prior season to make sure they are still available and interested in returning,” said Travers. “If there’s a spot available, we then start to advertise for the position in February” – especially for lifeguards, a position Travers calls “extremely competitive.”
Mancuso has a similar timeline for hiring pool staff. “We have patio staff, front desk staff, and then we have lifeguards. Those are the three seasonal big positions that we staff,” she said. The rehire letters go out in January and February, so that any open positions can start getting filled by March. “Over the course of the summer, we have over 170 employees. It ranges between 150-175. It’s a lot of people to hire.”
The off season is also spent completing maintenance projects at the pool; Mancuso notes they recently painted the diving tower at the Maplewood pool. The previous year they tackled one of their biggest capital projects ever by installing a new pump and pool filtration system.
Shutting the pool down for seven months of the year means there is quite a bit of cleanup to prepare it for opening again, and at the South Orange pool, cleaning starts months in advance. “Cleaning up and getting the pool ready to open usually start around the middle of April,” says Travers. “We will start watching the weather to see when it is beyond freeze points, because the entire pool is winterized for the winter, so there is no water or anything running to the pool.”
The first order of business in clean up involves turning the water back on. “A plumber has to come out and de-winterize the entire system – get all the bathrooms running, get all the plumbing fixtures fixed up. The ice machine in the snack bar – any equipment that needs water will need to get up and functioning,” said Travers. The offseason takes its toll. “Because it’s been off for seven months in the winter, stuff is always broken. The pool sits for seven months and then all of a sudden you flip a switch and it goes from zero to 100 and works as hard as it can for four to five months. And then it shuts down again. It’s taxing on any of the systems we have there, just because of the nature of seasonal usage.”
Once the water is running, the pool is drained and powerwashed of all the algae that grows over it during the wintertime. “We can’t drain our pool to keep it empty during the winter because of our proximity to the river. There is a chance that the water pressure from underneath could actually push the pool out of the ground. So we have to keep water in it to ensure it doesn’t float out of the ground,” Travers explained. After firing up the pool motors and fixing any hiccups that inevitably come with that, it’s time to fill up the pools.
“The big pool takes a week and a half to fill,” said Travers. “It’s 628,000 gallons of water! So it takes a long time to fill up.”
The big pool in Maplewood takes four days to fill up. Once that is done, out come one of the most endearingly odd fixtures of the pool: the cactuses. Every winter they are removed from the patio area and carefully placed in a greenhouse behind the recreation department, stored alongside the many hoses, rakes, and the wide variety of thriving plants growing for the Maplewood Garden Club’s annual plant sale.
“When I first got this job, I was like – wait a minute, we are not in Arizona. We have cactuses at the pool?!” said Mancuso. “We usually wait until right after Mother’s Day to bring them out. They stay in the greenhouse all winter.”
Once the pool is ready, lifeguard training sessions begin in earnest. Finn Moss, who has been lifeguarding at the South Orange pool since 2015, is looking forward to returning this summer as the morning manager for the lifeguard staff.
Moss, who grew up in Maplewood, said, “I was very much a pool kid growing up. I was always at the Maplewood pool. I was on the swim team too. Lifeguarding seemed like the logical first job to go for.” Calling the lifeguards a “tight knit bunch,” Moss praises the experience and the chance to have a summer job at the pool. “It’s a lovely place to relax,” he said. “It’s a very family friendly environment. There’s always kids running around.”
Travers, who grew up in South Orange and has been going to the pool there since he was a kid, says of being in charge of the pool now, “It’s a little nostalgic.” He marvels at the peaceful oasis the space offers. “I feel like the community pool is one of South Orange’s greatest assets. It’s tucked away off of any major road. There are actually people that walk right by it and will ask what it is. I am always amazed by that.”
Mancuso calls a few hours at the Maplewood pool a “respite” from the day-to-day grind of work and even over-programmed summer camp activities. “To me, it’s a lot of green space too,” she said. “The whole property is seven acres. Once you get back there and see it all, the weeping willow trees, your friends all laying on the grass…it’s just pretty good for a getaway.”
So when you are enjoying the annual float night this summer at the pool, think of all the preparation and behind the scenes work that went into readying this community treasure. With Maplewood Pool getting between 6,000 and 7,000 members a season, and the South Orange pool seeing an average of 1,600 people walk through gates on a typical Saturday, there is a lot of hard work done so that all those delighted neighbors can bump into each other, their kids splashing with their friends, and devouring ice cream while it melts.
Getting ready for another season of lifeguarding at the pool, Moss sums it nicely when asked to consider what makes it such a special place to be during those summer days. “I very rarely have a bad day at the pool.”
Sara Courtney is a writer living in Maplewood. She wears SPF 50 but it doesn't help.