HONOLULU, Hawaii (HawaiiNewsNow) - Lifeguard service on Oahu’s beaches could start running from sunup until sundown if a City Council bill up for discussion Thursday morning gets approved.
“We absolutely believe that this is going to be a good thing for our community and it’s going to save lives,” said Jim Howe, director of the Honolulu Emergency Services Department.
The "all daylight hours" plan has a lot of support, but still faces some challenges in terms of how quickly officials can hire the staffing needed to expand service islandwide.
There are 173 beaches on Oahu, and Emergency Services’ Ocean Safety Division is in charge of all of them.
Only 22 have lifeguard towers, while the rest of the coastline is monitored by mobile service rescue teams. But if Bill 39 is passed, officials are hoping you’ll see more lifeguards more often, and they say that will absolutely help save lives.
“Unfortunately about 17% of the drownings that have occurred on the island has been before 9 a.m. and after 5:30 p.m., because Hawaii people like to use the waters as soon as the soon comes up, and they like to be going until the sun goes down,” said Councilwoman Kymberly Pine, citing the current shift hours lifeguards are working.
Pine introduced the bill after lengthy discussions with Ocean Safety officials about what could be done to make Oahu’s beaches safer.
"This needs to be a top priority of the city, and our lifeguards need to have more opportunities to do what they do best — and that is to save people,” she said.
"There’s really anywhere from four to five hours — or six hours even on the longer days of the year — when there’s no lifeguards at the beaches, and that’s just something we need to work toward as a lifeguard group and also as an ocean-going community,” said Bryan Phillips, a City and County of Honolulu Ocean Safety lifeguard.
Ocean Safety Officials have already tested out the idea at Hanauma Bay, where lifeguards have been stationed four days a week on 10-hour shifts since February.
They say the pilot project has been hugely successful.
“The number of preventive actions that group is taking is four times greater than prior," Howe said.
“Now, we’ve extended the hours so you’d expect that, but it also means that they’re a little more proactive and we all know that it’s prevention that saves the lives first. If we can’t prevent it, then we have to respond and react and we will save that life as well if possible, but it all comes together as a cohesive program.”
Pine says extended hours improve the safety and well-being for not just the public, but lifeguards as well.
“They’re realizing they feel healthier, their vision is better cause they’re not just looking at the water with the glaring sun and reflection five or six days a week, they’re actually having time to recuperate and they’re better employees, they’re happier," Pine said.
She added, “They’re saving more people they found because people were going to Hanauma Bay at different hours when lifeguards weren’t there, and they feel more satisfied that they can help more people.”
Right now, there are about 250 lifeguards working for Ocean Safety. It’s unclear how many more will need to be hired in order to expand lifeguard service on Oahu beaches to cover all daylight hours, but it will likely take a few years before they can cover the entire island.
“We’ll have to look at where we can expand where we can do the most good first," Howe said.
“Hanauma Bay we had more drownings than any other beach on Oahu, so that’s the first place we started the program. So I would anticipate that we would follow that same metric. Where does the service make the most sense? Where’s it going to help the most people.” Howe added that the logistics of hiring enough lifeguards who can meet the department’s high standards may also delay how quickly they can execute “all daylight hours” coverage.
“Drownings are one of the leading causes of death in the state of Hawaii, and the more lifeguards we have on duty and at beaches and ready to make a rescue or prevent a rescue from being needed, that’s going to increase the odds of survival for the public and locals at our beaches,” Phillips said.
“It’s just a no-brainer when it comes to safety, when it comes to public safety, beachgoer safety and also the ability to have an extra day of rest for our lifeguards, an extra day to maybe get another job. All signs point to yes in my opinion.”
Public testimony is welcome when the bill is discussed Thursday at 9 a.m. at Honolulu Hale before the City Council Public Safety and Welfare Committee.