Teachers and principals at Fairfield's schools were ready to welcome students at the start of the new academic year last week, but the ranks of crossing guards to help guide youngsters safely to those classrooms are lacking, according to Lt. Jim Perez, a Fairfield police spokesman.

Because of the shortage, police officers have had to fill in at some crosswalks to ensure safety, and Tony Gamberdella, the town's crossing guard coordinator, has also had to resume crosswalk duties.

While 15 crossing guards would be able to provide adequate coverage, Gamberdella said, he currently needs three more standby guards and at least two full-time guards.

"They all liked the work. It's not a matter of them quitting," he said. However, physical ailments prevented at least two guards from returning to their posts this year. However, Gamberdella didn't learn about that until late in the summer.

"I expected to have them this year," he said. "I've been covering since the beginning of this year because we don't have enough guards."

The three schools where crossing guards are needed are Holland Hill, Mill Hill and Stratfield.

Because of the shortage, Gamberdella and the Police Department are recruiting residents who might have the flexibility in their schedules to become a crossing guard. Employment applications can be picked up at Fairfield Police Department headquarters at 100 Reef Road. The pay is $50 a day for a total of about two hours, comprising both the morning and afternoon shifts, according to Gamberdella. One crossing guard will typically cover two schools on the same day, because of the staggered opening/closing schedules.

Jenny Devanney, a crossing guard at Roger Sherman Elementary and Tomlinson Middle schools, first became a guard nine years ago when her children were younger as "just another way of connecting with other parents."

While they are grown and no longer attend local schools, she has continued working as a crossing guard because "I just love doing it."

In addition, she said, "I met a lot of nice families. The kids are great. They see you. They remember you when they reach middle school."

Devanney's attention to her responsibilities is not unappreciated.

Seventh-grader Delia Murphy said, the crossing guards "deserve more than they're given."

Fellow seventh-grader Corrine Wilklow added, "They're really nice. They recognize your face every morning. When you cross they always say, `hi.' It makes you feel special, like you're one of a kind."

Of the physical criteria cited for crossing guards, Gamberdella said, "You have to be able to see, hear, walk and not be afraid of traffic because you're going to have to get out into it, sometimes to stop it.

"You have to protect these kids at all costs," he added.

Perez, the division commander of special services, which oversees the crossing guard program, said a full complement of crossing guards is vital to school children's safety and security.

"It's important that someone is there to look out for the kids' safety, because if they're not there, then these children run a greater risk of injury," he said.

"These crossing guards take their job extremely serious and tend to bond with the parents and the children within their area of responsibility. We deem them very important within the Police Department."

Applications for the job can be picked up at Police Department headquarters, 100 Reef Road. Anyone with questions should call 203-254-4815.