From staffing to storage, lifeguards outline needs in light of ocean safety shortfalls

Always Investigating looked into years of drowning data and found some common links, including age of the victims and the fact that many happen at un-lifeguarded beaches.

With drowning prevention now top of mind, what’s needed to improve lifeguard resources?

There are big stretches of neighbor-island beaches and several on Oahu with no lifeguard towers or assigned coverage, and when the best lifeguards in the world are working out of storage closets, that’s just not up to par with the services they’re expected to provide.

We wanted to know how all of this is going to get better, and when.

Whether it’s the facilities lifeguards home-base from, the resources they have access to, how well they’re spaced out across the islands, even the hours they are scheduled to work — all too often, it falls short.

“We have the best lifeguards in the world and we treat them as second-class citizens according to the other lifeguard areas, like in L.A.,” said Honolulu City Councilwoman Kymberly Pine. “Our lifeguards should not be repairing their Jet Skis with their own money.”

Lifeguards can also be found working out of storage closets or spare space between park bathrooms.

Water incidents, especially snorkeling at beaches without lifeguards, kill more tourists than most other visitor activities combined.

The number-one way to prevent it, experts say, is to have people go where lifeguards are present.

We surveyed lifeguard units statewide to find out what all the county crews need, and it boils down to hiring more of them, assigned to more places, and for more hours. Click here to view their full answers.

On Oahu, for instance, they generally work the beaches 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

“There’s a lot of people before we get to work and a lot of people after we go home,” said Ocean Safety lieutenant Kawika Eckart. “I find when we’re leaving the beach sometimes it’s the most crowded. We definitely need more lifeguards. We need to increase our hours of coverage on the beach.”

“I know that the council is in support of insuring the increased funding to this department. We definitely want to see what we passed years ago: lifeguards from sunrise to sunset,” Pine said.

A pilot project aims to extend hours first at a new district being created at Hanauma Bay.

“We will have coverage at Hanauma Bay for every hour that Hanauma Bay has people there,” said Jim Howe, director of the city’s Emergency Services Department.

By overlapping and extending shifts, the bay will have lifeguards on site from 6 a.m. to as late as 7:30 p.m. in the summer.

“We’re going to pilot a four (day), 10 (hour) work schedule for our employees,” Howe said. “It’s going to show us what it’s going to cost and what we’ll need to make it work at the other beaches.”

The Hanauma Bay pilot will add four to a front-line staff of 12.

The next priority will be Waikiki and Ala Moana. Island-wide, the same approach could mean 40 more lifeguards would be needed atop the 122 on staff.

“What we don’t want to do is get into this program without having enough people to work, and we don’t know how many it’s really going to  take yet,” Howe said.

Oahu’s rescue craft teams recently doubled from four to eight, but they need more than people, too.

“We need more lifeguard towers. We need more trucks. We need more skis. We need more sleds. We need more trailers. We need facilities to house all of that equipment in,” Howe said.

Facilities in the form of storage and office configured containers are slated for Kailua and Ala Moana beach parks as soon as this summer at a cost of or under $20,000 a piece.

Oahu county will soon present the ideas to the Kailua and Ala Moana area neighborhood boards.

“We are taking park space and we’re taking overflow parking,” Howe said. “We’re not sure how they’re going to respond to us saying, ‘Will you allow us to put a container right here in the park?'”

Always Investigating asked, firemen have fire stations, policemen have police stations. Why doesn’t ocean safety have something even beyond these future containers?

“We’re already in the process of having that first permanent ocean safety station built (in Kailua),” Howe said.

A permanent station would free up the container to move to any of 42 other island-wide sites as more permanent facilities come online. Kailua’s station is slated for a bluff across the street from the beach park.

While the location isn’t optimal, Howe said, “the community is going to have to have their say on it. Are they willing to give up parking space in the beach park? The community loves their lifeguards and they have seen the conditions they have worked in for many years. They appreciate our lifeguards and I know that they’ll be very supportive of them.”

With a slow roll-out of more hours at Hanauma Bay and an experiment with some containers at some beach parks, Always Investigating asked, why not roll it out all one time across the island and get more resources out there faster?

“We would love to do that of course,” Pine said. “I think the private sector can be assistants in moving a lot of this forward faster. I have talked to companies that say they want to pay for lifeguard staff. They want to pay for a lifeguard tower, and they want to do it now.”

Recent legislation allows sponsors to pay for things like that in exchange for recognition. It can already happen at the zoo. Click here to read Ordinance 17-16, which was created under Bill 78 (2015).

There’s a public hearing next month on the rules for elsewhere. A meeting will be held on March 5 at 1 p.m. at the Mission Memorial conference room at 550 S. King Street. Click here for more information.

Simple gift donations, which do not require recognition, can already happen.

Another possible solution for un-lifeguarded beaches are rescue tubes that have proven helpful across the state. Howe says they’re looking at placing life rings at popular but remote spots.

Always Investigating asked each neighbor island county to describe its current staffing and resources for its ocean safety division, how many lifeguards are assigned to specific beaches, and if, and by when, they have plans to expand staffing and expand assignments to more beaches. Here are their answers:

Maui County

Maui County has 61 lifeguards, 1 battalion chief, 1 clerk

“There are 12 lifeguard towers staffed with the following personnel each day.  7 towers that have a rescue watercraft (jetski), have 3 personnel each.  5 towers w/out a rescue watercraft, have 2 personnel each.  The remaining lifeguards are used to staff the 12 lifeguard towers, to cover personnel on their off days, or for other absences.

“Additional lifeguards were requested in the past but have not made it through the County’s budget process. The Department of Fire and Public Safety will continue to request for additional lifeguards in order to increase our coverage at the existing County lifeguarded beaches.

“We would love to expand lifeguard services to additional County beach parks, but we still would need to evaluate the unique needs and challenges for each location so that a comprehensive budgetary plan can be prepared.  However, our first priority is to seek the additional lifeguard positions to better staff the County beaches already being served.”

— Maui County Department of Fire and Public Safety

Kauai County

The Kauai Fire Department’s Ocean Safety Bureau employs 49 full-time and nine part-time ocean safety officers. Forty full-time personnel and nine part-time personnel are assigned to beaches (lifeguard towers). The bureau operates 10 lifeguard towers. One tower is located at Kee State Beach Park and is state-funded, including the four full-time, and one part-time personnel assigned.

The bureau operates three roving patrol Jet Ski units positioned on the north, east, and southwest districts.

According to the Kauai Fire Department, “KFD OSB is proposing to open a Lifeguard Tower adjacent to Waiohai Beach (Po‘ipū).  Waiohai Tower will be mobile on skids and funded by the Kaua‘i Lifeguard Association (KLA).”

Hawaii County

The Hawaii Fire Department employs 47 water safety officers. The Ocean Safety Division is divided into two divisions: East Hawaii and West Hawaii.

East Hawaii is managed by a Water Safety Officer Captain

  1. South Hilo District
    1. 4 beach parks
      1. 11 total positions on rotating shifts and days off
      2. 5 temporary summer hire positions
    2. Puna District
      1. 2 beach parks
        1. 10 total positions on rotating shifts and days off
        2. 2 personnel on duty are for Power Water Craft (Jet Ski)
      2. Ka`u District
        1. 1 beach park
          1. 4 total positions on rotating shifts and days off

West Hawaii is managed by a Water Safety Officer Captain

  1. North and South Kona District
    1. 2 beach parks
      1. 12 total positions on rotating shifts and days off
    2. South Kohala District – Managed by a Water Safety Officer Lieutenant
      1. 2 beach parks of which 1 park (Hapuna State Beach Park) is funded by the State through DLNR grant to Hawaii County.
        1. 10 total positions on rotating shifts and days off
        2. 2 personnel on duty are for Power Water Craft (Jet Ski)

“At this time, the County of Hawaii does not have funding for new positions based on our current budget.  It is always our plan to continue to grow the coverages at County Beaches and we are in communication with the Administration on this.  Hawaii County is struggling with its budget.  A fair share of the TAT would greatly help.  There continues to be legislative push at the capital for State Sponsored coverage at Kua Bay in West Hawaii.  Those bills have died each year despite strong community and HFD Support,” the Hawaii Fire Department said in a statement.

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