When high winds battered Oahu’s south shore for two days in early May, Honolulu’s legendary watermen set out to sea, rescuing almost 500 surfers and swimmers who were caught unprepared by the towering waves.

Now the 272 lifeguards, who monitor some 227 miles of Oahu’s often-treacherous coastline, are turning to the public for some assistance in return.

The lifeguards and their supporters want to make the city’s Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services division, now part of the city’s Emergency Services department, an autonomous department within the city government. They hope that having their own department would make it easier for them to lobby for the resources they say they need to protect the public.

City and County Ocean Safety lifeguards assist on a jet ski offshore Waikiki Beach.
As beach-going mobs increase once again, ocean safety lifeguards find themselves squeezed for resources. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

More than 200 people testified at the Honolulu City Council in October in support of Resolution 21-234, a measure that would put the question on the ballot in this year’s general election, as it would require an amendment to the city’s charter.

“It’s critical for the growth of our department and for the general public’s safety,” said Joey Cadiz, 32, a lifeguard who has worked at Sandy Beach and at Waimea. “Hawaii is recognized as having the best watermen and women in the world, but the resources and support we get don’t reflect that. It could be much better.”

Jim Ireland, a medical doctor who serves as director of the city’s emergency services department and who oversees both Ocean Safety and Emergency Medical Services, agrees that it might be time to consider splitting the two arms under his supervision into separate agencies.

“Are they stronger together or are they better and stronger if they are separate?” Ireland asked rhetorically. “It’s something that needs more study — maybe study is not the word — maybe discussion.”

But the proposal to open the issue to voters has stalled at the City Council. Council member Calvin Say, who chairs the budget committee, has declined to hold a hearing on it, effectively blocking further action on the measure.

The lifeguards say they believe Say is working at the behest of Mayor Rick Blangiardi in opposing the measure and that Say is worried about the potential expense of creating a new department.

Blangiardi’s office referred calls to Jim Ireland and declined further comment.

Contacted for comment, a spokeswoman for Say said he was too busy for an interview and instead provided a statement.

“Ocean safety is very important to our island community, and the Council has demonstrated its commitment through its budgeting process,” Say said in the statement. “Through this year’s budget we have provided full funding of the Ocean Safety division, including increased resources for extended hours, equipment, and an increase of 37 contract positions …. The Council will continue to work with the Administration to support our important Ocean Safety division and all the work they do, while balancing the many city functions and needs of our community.”

Now, lifeguards and Councilmember Heidi Tsuneyoshi, the proposal’s sponsor, who chairs the council’s public safety committee, are asking people in the community to weigh in and show their support for taking the question to voters. They say it is very late in the session, but not too late, for the measure to make it to the ballot. Another committee could hear it, and the full council could still choose to vote for it.

“We’re asking supporters to talk to the budget chair, and there could also be conversations with Council Chair (Tommy) Waters to have this resolution put into a different committee if the budget chair doesn’t have the time to have it scheduled,” Tsuneyoshi said. Say was appointed budget chair by Waters last year.

“The powers that be would rather have it stay with the status quo,” she said.

Key City Officials

Tsuneyoshi’s tenure for dealing with the issue is limited, however, as she is running for governor.

The Ocean Safety division’s activities are an integral part of life in Hawaii. The division recorded 2,411 rescues in 2021 and 2,415 in 2020. Personnel operate out of 41 lifeguard towers in 21 city beach parks, with eight jet ski rescue teams operating seven days a week, 365 days a year.

They don’t manage to save everybody: About 35 to 40 people die each year in drownings on Oahu, some of them at unguarded beaches.

It’s a stable workforce, with many longtime veterans and relatively few open positions. Of the 272 workers, 255 are men and 17 are women.

Lifeguarding in the state is a field with a storied history reaching back to the Waikiki Beachboys, who invented some of the early rescue techniques, including special paddleboards that helped them bring swimmers back to shore. In the 1990s, Hawaii lifeguards innovated again when they began using jet skis to pluck endangered swimmers out of the waves. Among the famous lifeguards employed by the city over the years were Eddie Aikau, Brian Keaulana and Earl Bungo.

In earlier decades, Ocean Safety operations were part of the city parks department. In 1998, the division was moved to the newly created Emergency Services Department, along with Emergency Medical Services.

The debate over how best to administer the Ocean Safety department comes at a time of growing burdens on lifeguards. With tourism surging, more local residents turning to riskier water sports and a new directive to attend the beaches from dawn to dusk, the strains are increasing on the lifeguards, they say.

City and County Ocean Safety lifeguard tower amidst the many tents and beachgoers at Waikiki Beach.
Honolulu’s Ocean Safety lifeguard tower is often surrounded by many tents and beachgoers at Waikiki Beach. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The lifeguards and Ireland say new towers are needed in at least four locations, including Electric Beach near the power plant in West Oahu, Kalama in Kailua and Ke Iki and Sharks Cove on the North Shore, all popular destinations heavily promoted on social media. Each new tower would need seven or eight new lifeguards. Ireland said he believes four more jet ski rescue teams are needed.

City officials have boosted the Ocean Safety division’s budget in the past two years, from $17.2 million for the agency last year to $19.6 million this year, a 13% hike. It was a welcome increase but doesn’t meet the new needs, according to the lifeguards.

They say the division has been critically underfunded for years and it will take concerted effort to catch up. In city budget negotiations, their needs are grouped with those of other emergency services, which they say frequently means they receive less than they actually need because government officials don’t recognize their particular and specific needs.

“We were just getting by, barely, for years and years and years,” said John Kamalei Titchen, chief of the ocean safety division.

Ireland agrees that the department has been underfunded. On the other hand, he said, it is also essential to keep in mind Honolulu’s overall budget needs, the potential costs of operating the department separately and whether standing alone would boost its effectiveness or not.

The lifeguards say one of the biggest problems has been the dilapidated facilities they have been given to house their operations and equipment. They have been compelled to park jet skis in public restrooms in city parks. Lifeguards work out of structures that have been condemned, including the Natatorium in Waikiki. In Kailua, they have operated out of shipping containers.

“This is ridiculous,” Titchen wrote in an email.

Ireland agrees it is unacceptable. He said the lifeguards are being forced to make use of facilities they inherited after the facilities had outlived their usefulness to others.

“The facilities are below substandard; it’s really not where we need to be,” he said.

City and County Ocean Safety lifeguard rescue buoy on the sand fronting the lifeguard tower at Waikiki Beach.
An Ocean Safety lifeguard rescue buoy lays at the ready on the sand fronting the lifeguard tower at Waikiki Beach. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

Bryan Phillips, an 18-year Ocean Safety veteran who works on the North Shore, from Kaena Point to Kaneohe, said he believes things have deteriorated because the people who run the city don’t really understand the pressures faced by the lifeguards on a daily basis.

“Ocean Safety has long been the stepchild of the city’s emergency services function,” he said. “We need to be our own department, independent and autonomous.”

“The people who manage the department don’t access the ocean the way we do. They are not ocean users like we are,” he added. “We are highly trained and skilled watermen and women who put our own safety aside to help others.”

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