The big winter waves have started rolling in and sea rescues are rising.

But the city’s top ocean safety official says he has been stymied in getting more lifeguards out to the beaches because of bureaucratic gridlock, a situation he has told city officials is reaching a “crisis point.”

In August, according to John Titchen, chief of Honolulu’s ocean safety and lifeguard services division, the department decided to promote four qualified ocean safety officers, all city employees, to the level of lieutenant, which would in turn allow them to bring on four more lower-level ocean safety officers to fill their jobs.

Ocean Safety lifeguard on a jet ski offshore Waikiki Beach.
A Honolulu ocean safety lifeguard, perched on a jet ski, monitors beachgoers at Waikiki Beach. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

But higher-level administrators and officials in the city’s human resources department have kicked the paperwork back 10 times, Titchen said.

He said that personnel officials have requested additional documentation of various kinds over and over, asking for items such as proof of certifications and driver’s licenses, slowing down the process. In addition, about a dozen people will be required to sign off on the hirings, a process he fears will be further delayed over the holidays.

“I’m at the end of my rope, I’m just so frustrated,” Titchen said in an interview.

He said that he is a lawyer and understands what he calls “rules and procedures” but that the process has dragged on for five months.

Titchen wrote an email on Wednesday to Mayor Rick Blangiardi and other officials, asking them for their urgent assistance in expediting the promotions and new hires. Titchen provided the email to Civil Beat and other news organizations.

He said the job applicants have been left dangling.

“They are waiting for the call,” he said. “They want to know what’s up. They say, ‘Hey, we did the interview in August,’” but he says he has no good answers to give them.

Public safety is also being placed at risk, he told city officials.

“I am hopeful that it means no one drowns,” he told them in the email.

City officials said they could not comment on what they called personnel matters.

“We’ll respond to John directly,” said Nola Miyasaki, the city’s human resources director.

In an emailed response to questions, the mayor’s staff said they were investigating the situation.

“Managing director Michael Formby emailed a response to John Titchen this morning, informing him that we spent an hour and a half discussing hiring-related issues in our cabinet meeting this morning, and that he requested more information on the hiring of vacant Water Safety Officer positions from Director Nola Miyasaki and Dr. Jim Ireland. The managing director wants to know if there are valid reasons for any of the ‘back and forth’ interactions mentioned in John’s email,” wrote Ian Scheuring, a spokesman for the mayor.

Ireland is director of the department of emergency services, which oversees the ocean safety division.

Kailua Beach Ocean safety surfboard with swimmers enjoying the beach.
The city’s top lifeguard is raising the alarm about the city’s slow hiring process and his inability to bring on needed ocean safety officers. Honolulu has recently increased lifeguard hours, keeping them on the beaches from dawn to dusk. Cory Lum/Civil Beat/2022

The issue arises as Honolulu grapples with a serious personnel problem. In July, the city reported it was short by 3,000 workers because of high retirement levels and difficulties recruiting, amid widespread labor shortages. A cumbersome and bureaucratic employment process was said to be slowing the pace of hiring, with job recruits reportedly waiting an average of six months to get employment offers for vacant slots.

Blangiardi has repeatedly called the city’s employment issues his biggest single challenge and has pledged to add resources to speed up hiring and boost employee retention.

In the email to Civil Beat, Blangiardi officials said the administration “remains more committed than ever to improving long-neglected hiring practices and reducing the amount of time it takes to hire employees.”

Miyasaki said the city is making progress toward speeding employee onboarding, saying that she believes they have reduced average onboarding time from six months to about four months on average, but that the challenges remain great because of the labor shortage.

She would not comment on the ocean safety hiring delays but said it “might be an isolated situation.”

Titchen said that other city officials don’t seem to understand the gravity of the situation.

More lifeguards are needed because the city expanded beach safety coverage by instituting a “dawn to dusk” program that puts guards on the beach for longer hours, he said. Enacted in 2019, the new policy went into effect on July 1, 2021.

The interview process for the four vacant slots was completed a month after record high waves in July led to a surge in rescues. In one weekend in mid-July, Oahu lifeguards made 1,641 rescues, according to city officials.

If the vacant positions aren’t filled soon, Titchen said, it would make it harder to request additional slots in the coming budget season because it would appear the department had empty slots.

This issue arises amid administrative frictions between some city departments.

The ocean safety division has chafed at being under the management of the city’s Emergency Services Department and has sought to become an autonomous department within city government. Ocean safety officials say that being separate would allow them to operate more efficiently and make it easier for them to lobby for the resources they say they need to protect the public.

More than 200 people testified last year in support of Honolulu Resolution 21-234, a measure that would have put the issue on the ballot, as the reorganization would require an amendment to the city charter.

But Blangiardi opposed the move and council member Calvin Say, who chairs the budget committee, blocked a vote on it.

Titchen’s email to the mayor suggests that he believes the bureaucratic inaction may reflect political infighting.

He said he believed someone could be “purposely thwarting” the recruitment process for lifeguards, for an “arbitrary and capricious reason.” But he said he believes he has the mayor’s support.

“The mayor has prioritized ocean safety,” he said in the interview. “We know they want to help. This is just a very challenging process at times.”

The ocean safety division employs 286 lifeguards, up from 199 four years ago, with eight vacant slots. About 235 are civil service employees and the rest are contractors.

They monitor some 227 miles of Oahu’s coastline and operate more than three dozen lifeguard towers.

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