When you come to Hawaii for a relaxing vacation in paradise, the last thing you want to worry about is staying safe. But, the numbers don’t lie. Since 1995, drowning has been the state’s fifth leading cause of death, and on Oahu, 273 people drowned from 2005 to 2014 — many of those who fall victim are visitors.

Lifeguards in Hawaii are immensely effective at saving lives, but only when they’re on-duty, which is typically from about 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. But, what about the hours before and after? During those times, swimmers are essentially on their own.

New legislation, however, would extend coverage times for Oahu’s beaches, a move supporters say would help save more lives and educate residents and tourists about the dangers of high surf and rough conditions. Essentially, the bill would ensure more beaches are covered from sunrise to sunset, an added service that would not only protect swimmers, but those who participate in ocean activities, such as parasailing, stand-up paddle boarding, and surfing.

Brian Keaulana, a retired city lifeguard captain and veteran waterman told the Honolulu Star Advertiser that many lifeguards already work overtime in order to make sure swimmers are safe.

A lifeguard stays after work because he doesn’t “want that conscience to be upon him. It’s not about the money. It’s about a human life,” Keaulana said. “You’re only as good as your backup.”

a lifeguard stand on a beach

Photo: Cristo Vlahos

Currently, most lifeguards in Hawaii work a 9:00 a.m. to 5:30 p.m. shift. But, the new legislation would extend those hours at certain beaches.

According to the Honolulu Star Advertiser, the city employs about 140 lifeguards who are stationed at 29 beaches, covering about 200 miles of coastline. Supervisors have the authority to extend hours during high surf and rough conditions but not on a regular basis. When lifeguards ask to stay past their shifts permission is granted in the majority of cases.

Ian Santee, deputy director of the city Emergency Services Department, told the newspaper the agency supports the intent of the bill, but the department would need to hire at least 40 to 50 more lifeguards to cover shifts from sunrise to sunset, which would cost about $3.5 million in salaries alone.

He told the Honolulu Star Advertiser, “The city’s primary purpose is public safety. But however, we need to make sure that all agencies are covered and there is a reason and a rhyme for doing what we do,” Santee told Council members. “It’s not something that can happen overnight. We are definitely open to suggestions and meeting with the union and so forth.”

The Emergency Services Department gets two new personal watercraft every year.

Santee suggested that moving toward extended coverage could be achieved in phases, adding that certain beaches such as Hanauma Bay and Waikiki are already staffed with lifeguards starting from 7 to 8 a.m. He said the department’s long-term plan calls for more personal watercraft and an expansion of services. Kymberly Pine, the Councilwoman who introduced the bill told the Honolulu Star Advertiser she hopes the city can look into extending lifeguard hours while not cutting other emergency services.

According to the newspaper, Oahu is divided into four operational districts: South Shore, from Pearl Harbor to Maunalua Bay; Windward, from Maunalua Bay to Mokapu Peninsula; North Shore, from Mokapu Peninsula to Kaena Point; and Leeward, from Kaena Point to Pearl Harbor. There are about 30 lifeguards who are trained to operate personal watercraft, and the department gets two new personal watercraft every year to supplement older models.

Lifeguards in Hawaii are trained to keep you as safe as possible in our oceans, so more lifeguards could also mean a safer experience for all of us. Whether or not the budget will allow for the increase is still up for debate. But, an answer should be coming soon.

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