The new budget includes money for 18 new lifeguard positions and extended hours, with an emphasis on the Leeward Coast.

After months of staffing shortages that prompted safety concerns, Honolulu has allocated $22 million in its latest budget to increase the number of lifeguards, their hours of operation, services and equipment.

That includes 18 new lifeguard positions, raising the total to 305, which will help the Ocean Safety and Lifeguard Services Division fully implement dawn-to-dusk supervision that increases hours of operation at city beaches.

One of the biggest beneficiaries of the funding will be beaches on the Leeward Coast. After over a decade, a new lifeguard tower will be added to Kahe Point Beach Park in Kapolei. This will be the 42nd tower on Oahu, according to Chief of Ocean Safety John Titchen.

lifeguards, recruitment, training, ocean safety
The city is set to add 18 new lifeguards as a part of the program advancement. (Stewart Yerton/Civil Beat/2023)

The decision to increase funding for ocean safety comes as tourists and residents are increasingly drawn — often by social media posts — to sites such as Electric Beach and Mermaid Caves in areas outside Waikiki and other traditional hotspots.

The budget for the next fiscal year, which takes effect Saturday, is an increase over last year when there were 283 lifeguard positions and $18 million allocated for ocean safety.

Titchen said people often go to the beaches without sufficient awareness of water conditions, increasing the risk of drownings and other injuries.

The death of a visitor from California, Stephen Phan, while snorkeling off Electric Beach in Nanakuli highlighted the importance of ocean safety.

Titchen also referred to a city law that called for extending lifeguard service hours starting July 1, 2021, meaning many beaches needed to be staffed from 8 a.m. to 6:30 p.m., up from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.

“The first thing that we did in response to the law that required us to have to be on duty for longer hours was to increase our mobile services,” Titchen said.

The entire Leeward Coast has five mobile responders with rescue jet skis and lifeguard tower supervisors, compared with two in 2020.

He also previously blamed personnel processing delays as an obstacle to lifeguard recruitment.

The budget also included $187,000 for a new lifeguard tower and additional equipment at Kahe Point Beach, also known as Electric Beach.

“It’s good for the community to have access to our services longer,” said Simeon Ke-Paloma, a lifeguard of 12 years. He noted that more people are accessing what he calls high-risk “hidden gems.”

“We have millions of visitors using our beaches and it’s funny because the only thing that hasn’t grown is our lifeguard department,” Ke-Paloma said.

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