With record winter swells hitting Oahu’s beaches, many are raising the question: Should lifeguards work longer hours to keep beachgoers safe?
It’s something the Honolulu City Council is looking into.
Right now, lifeguards typically work from 9 a.m.-5:30 p.m.
If passed, Resolution 16-43 would urge the city to extend those hours, and seek funding and negotiate with the state and Hawaii Government Employees Association to do so.
The resolution was introduced by Councilwoman Kymberly Pine after consulting with former lifeguard and avid waterman Brian Keaulana.
“We have a lot of people using the beach before they go to work, and we don’t have lifeguards on duty during some very serious current changes and rough conditions in the water, and also, they’re using the beach after they come home from work,” she said. “Many lifeguards, including the Keaulana family, they purposely go to the beach early or they stay late because they care about the people that are at their beaches, and so during their off time, they’re saving people, and we shouldn’t have private citizens doing that or off-duty lifeguards doing that. We should take care of them.”
In recent years, the number of ocean drownings has increased statewide.
Many, including current and former lifeguards, and surfers, testified Tuesday before the council’s public health, safety and welfare committee in support of the idea.
“We can think of numerous times where rescues have happened before and after work and we can definitely increase public safety for our tourists and our family members,” said Bryan Phillips, lifeguard with the City and County of Honolulu.
Kirk Ziegler has been a lifeguard for 10 years. “Ever since I started lifeguarding, I would come to work, especially in Waikiki, (at) 9 o’clock and there’s already hundreds of people at the beach. I leave (at 5:30 p.m. and there’s) hundreds of people on the beach, in the water,” he said. “East side, working Sandy Beach, you come, there’s people before you go and after you leave, and you sit there and you wait and the last thing we do is we look at the water when we leave and go, “God, I can’t believe we’re leaving right now.'”
Ziegler is now stationed on the North Shore, where he says the need is even more apparent. “I get questions just in general about tourists coming up, going ‘Oh look at the white fluffy, stuff coming in. Is that fun to play in?’ And that’s educating them, but as well that’s them not knowing what the ocean is about, not knowing that ‘that white, fluffy stuff’ will take you out to sea, bring you in, wash you around, and toss and turn you. And so for us, just the longer we’re there the more we can education the public and take care of our family here on the island.”
The city’s Emergency Services Department, however, voiced concerns not with the “if” but rather the “how.”
“From the administration side, we do support the intent of… this resolution, however there are some challenges with it in the sense of being able to figure out exactly what we’re going to be doing,” said the department’s deputy director, Ian Santee.
Right now, the city says there are 99 personnel working a combined total of 841 hours each day staffing towers around the island. Two watercraft are stationed on the North Shore, two on the east shore, and one each for the south and west shores.
Santee said changing the schedule to a four-day work week and increasing coverage to 8 a.m.-6 p.m. would raise that total by 15 percent, and staffing from sunup to sundown would tack on an additional 17 percent. That means the city would need to spend an additional $3.5 million just on salaries alone.
Pine: So you’re saying a 30-percent increase?
Pine: That’s only $3 million.
Santee: Yes, that’s what I said.
Pine: That’s a drop in the bucket compared to all the other things we’re spending money on if we’re going to save people.
Santee: Yes, I understand that. However, again, that is potentially, again, whatever resources we dedicate to ocean safety, that would be dedicated resources taken away from another agency in public safety.
Santee said the department already has the capability to extend hours in the morning or in the evening as necessary, as demonstrated during the Quiksilver in Memory of Eddie Aikau Big Wave Invitational.
“What you’re asking is for a permanent status of extended hours. What we do right now, what we feel that we’re able to have the liberty to do is when we know ahead of time that there will be high surf tomorrow, then we do add an extra ski or extra lifeguards to the tower. So it is being done, or we hold people over, but again, having a permanent status immediately is going to be a very difficult challenge,” he said. “That’s something that’s not going to happen overnight, but we may be able to work in phases of changing the work schedule as well as changing the coverage hours.”
Santee noted that lifeguards also start earlier at Hanauma Bay and at two towers along Waikiki beach.
The committee advanced the resolution. It now goes to the full council in two weeks.