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The Honolulu Advertiser
Posted on: Monday, July 21, 2003

Rescue craft, crews preferred as alternative to more lifeguards

 •  Map: Lifeguards on O'ahu

By Kawehi Haug
Advertiser Staff Writer

In the past five years, about half of the drownings off O'ahu occurred at beaches without lifeguard coverage, including clusters of drownings at Mokule'ia, Kahe Point and Diamond Head.

Officials say responding to remote emergencies via jet-powered watercraft makes more sense than building more lifeguard towers and stationing them at more beaches.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

But officials say that instead of putting up more lifeguard towers and stationing lifeguards at more beaches, the current system of responding to remote emergencies via jet-powered watercraft and fire rescue crews makes more sense.

"Those drownings are happening in scattered places along very long stretches of shoreline," said Dan Galanis, an epidemiologist with the state Department of Health's injury prevention and control program. "It's not like all of the incidents are happening at the same beaches. It's not feasible for the city to guard every beach on the island where there's been a drowning."

City lifeguards are stationed at 19 of the most popular beaches, including Waikiki, Ala Moana, Makaha and Kailua. Although the guarded beaches cover one-fourth of O'ahu's 198 miles of shoreline, they handle most beachgoers: nearly 18 million people in 2002, according to city Ocean Safety Division figures.

That year city lifeguards responded to 1,388 rescues, 13 drownings and more than 90,000 major and minor first-aid incidents.

The Honolulu Fire Department also handles ocean distress calls, primarily where lifeguards aren't stationed or when they're off duty.

Department of Health statistics show there were 108 near-shore ocean drownings on O'ahu from 1998 through 2002, 52 of which occurred at unsupervised beaches.

Drownings at unsupervised beaches included nine from Portlock to Kahala, eight along the stretch from Mokule'ia to Ka'ena Point, six near Kahe Point and five along the stretch of the Windward coast from La'ie to Kualoa.

But Ralph Goto, administrator of the city Ocean Safety Division, and Galanis said that stationing lifeguards along more stretches of shoreline may not be the solution.

"The traditional view of lifesaving is that lifeguards are assigned to towers, wait for something to happen and respond, effect a rescue, perform CPR, call for an ambulance, then return to the tower to wait for the next case," Goto said. "But the city and county has adopted a more proactive strategy."

The division's strategy is one of "prevention and preparedness" that includes educating the public on ocean safety issues, posting signs at beaches that warn of dangerous ocean conditions, patrolling the shoreline on jet-powered watercraft and working with the EMS system to respond to emergencies islandwide.

Waipa Ho'opi'i, foreground, and sister Kawena Ho'opi'i enjoy the water at Sand Island State Recreation Area. Their grandmother, who was watching them, says it's ultimately up to parents to keep an eye on their kids.

Richard Ambo • The Honolulu Advertiser

Goto said the Ocean Safety division has 12 rescue watercraft, four of which are used to respond to emergencies that occur at unguarded beaches during lifeguard hours from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

Acting Ocean Safety Lt. Ron Bregman, who oversees 18 lifeguards stationed along the Windward coast from the Hawai'i Kai boat ramp to Kailua Beach, said a two-person team patrols the shoreline looking for swimmers who may need assistance.

"We think the current system works really well," Bregman said. "Our mobile rescue team can respond to an emergency within minutes of getting the call."

Ryan Reasoner, one of the lifeguards assigned to the Windward O'ahu rescue team, said that on a calm day his jet-powered watercraft can get him from Sandy Beach to China Walls, an unsupervised beach in Portlock, in three to five minutes.

Bregman said the rescue craft can operate in 30-foot surf, making them the most effective method of water rescue short of airlifting a victim out of the water with a helicopter.

And should lifeguards need help, the Honolulu Fire Department is never far behind, said Fire Capt. Kenison Tejada.

The fire department has two rescue units, one in Pawa'a and one in Kailua. Both units, as well as the Waialua company, have boats specifically for ocean rescues. The department also has two jet-powered watercraft, one each at Wai'anae and Kailua; and four jet boats at Hawai'i Kai, Ka'a'awa, Waimanalo and Kailua.

Tejada said firefighters can respond to an ocean emergency within four to five minutes after they get a distress call. During hours when lifeguards are on duty, Tejada said the alarms are dispatched to both Ocean Safety and the fire department. If Ocean Safety needs backup, the fire department will respond to the call and stay on the scene until it is secure.

Beachgoers say they are comfortable with the way the city deploys its lifeguards.

"It would be great if all the beaches had lifeguards, but that's not reasonable," said Pamela Medeiros, a Hale'iwa mother of five. "And people are always looking out for each other on the beaches. If I see someone who looks like they need help, I'll call 911 — and I know others would do the same."

Steve Granger, 26, a surfer from Hawai'i Kai, agreed that it's unrealistic for all beaches to have lifeguards.

"I feel like the beaches are very safe and the busiest beaches on the island have lifeguards. That's the most important thing — that the riskiest and busiest beaches are covered," Granger said. "I know there are a lot of accidents in Portlock, like at China Walls and Spitting Caves, but I hardly ever see anyone swimming there, so it seems foolish to put lifeguards at almost empty beaches."

Goto said the city will conduct an islandwide beach hazard analysis this year that will involve ocean safety experts, risk management specialists and coastal geologists from UH and the University of Sydney in Australia where a similar type of assessment has been done. Goto said the city hopes to have the project completed within a year.

In the meantime, Goto noted that the city continues to increase the number of lifeguards. It has 140 full-time lifeguards, along with 30 to 40 part-time lifeguards. By next year, he said, the city will have 152 full-time lifeguards.

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