lifeguards ralph godo

Editorial| Island Voices

It’s time to provide resources lifeguards need to do their job

Lifeguards and water safety personnel were in the media spotlight during recent episodes of high surf on Oahu’s North Shore and during the Eddie Aikau surf meet at Waimea Bay last month.

Recognition of their heroic efforts was long overdue, as these professionals perform their duties 365 days a year, not only during periods of high surf and highly publicized international surf contests.

Our City and County lifeguards are vital members of the public safety/first responder team, and for $9.7 million a year, the public receives excellent value for their year-round, islandwide services. It’s time that we recognize their efforts and begin to provide the basic resources they need to do their jobs.

A recent editorial referred to “increased staffing” and “extended-hours coverage” by city lifeguards as if dawn to dusk coverage is an extra benefit for the division (“Deployment of lifeguards needs a look,” Star-Advertiser, March 5).

On the contrary, this coverage is an absolute necessity for the protection of those who are at the beach and in the ocean before 9 a.m. and after 5:30 p.m. every day.

Will creating 40-50 lifeguard positions cost the taxpayer? Yes. However, an additional $3.5 million would increase the Ocean Safety Division’s 2017 budget request to approximately $16 million and would bring coverage up to adequate levels, including before and after current hours, for Oahu.

As noted below, the 2017 proposed respective budgets of the Honolulu fire and police departments are 10 and 20 times the amount requested by the Ocean Safety Division:

>> Honolulu Police Department: $249.4 million (actual in 2015); $275.5 million (proposed 2017).

>> Honolulu Fire Department: $119.54 million (2015); $127.8 million (proposed 2017).

>> Emergency Medical Services: $26.27 million (2015); $30 million (proposed 2017).

>> Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services: $9.77 million (2015); $12.69 million (proposed 2017).

If, as state Department of Health statistics indicate, drowning is a leading cause of unintentional deaths in Hawaii, and is the leading cause of death for visitors to our islands; and, if according to United States Lifesaving Association data, chances of drowning at a lifeguarded beach are 1 in 18 million, then providing for adequate lifeguard services at our beaches is a no-brainer.

It is generally agreed that lifeguard services for Oahu’s beaches are essential and should be given serious attention. Providing for this protection is the responsibility of state and county government agencies, and of our elected officials.

Recent efforts by the counties to redefine their share of the transient accommodations tax collected by the state could include provisions to fund basic lifeguard services statewide.

The Hawaii Government Employees Association and the state Legislature recently recognized lifeguards’ essential public safety duties by creating a separate collective bargaining unit (Unit 14) for lifeguards, state sheriffs and Division of Conservation and Resources Enforcement officers. This was the first new bargaining unit created in the HGEA in over 30 years, and has finally provided the vehicle to negotiate for wages and benefits comparable with other public safety employees in the state as well as other safety professionals across the country.

Granted, further study is needed to determine the most efficient way to achieve adequate ocean safety/lifeguard coverage. A four-day, 10-hour-a-day schedule, use of part-time hires, staggered hour shifts and discretionary scheduling when conditions dictate are examples of measures that can be implemented.

Ultimately, the City Council and administration (with some prodding by their constituents) must agree to work together on addressing and resolving this very important public safety matter.