First winter swell arrives as Ocean Safety faces staffing shortages

Local News

HONOLULU (KHON2) — The first swell of the winter season arrived Friday, Sept. 24, and brought hundreds of surfers to the North Shore.

Honolulu Ocean Safety officials said lifeguards responded to eight rescues and made 50 preventive actions on Friday on the North Shore. Most of these incidents happened in the area between Ehukai Beach Park and Sunset Beach.

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Ocean Safety said the public could expect to see occasional tower closures at some Oahu beaches as the department faces staffing shortages.

No towers were closed on Friday as a powerful surf arrived.

“Every beach, every tower is important to us, but we recognize what’s about to happen with winter surf,” said Honolulu Ocean Safety Chief John Titchen.

He said there are typically 20 to 22 lifeguards working per day on the Leeward coast, as well as 27 to 30 working on the North Shore. Typically, three lifeguards should be at a tower during high surf events. Titchen said he hopes he can staff three guards at each tower this winter.

“At any given time, you could have some very deadly circumstances at any of those locations,” he explained. “But we’re being required to do more for the island. That means we’ve got to stretch out those resources.”

In July, Ocean Safety was required to begin a sunrise to sunset extended hours program. In August, Mayor Rick Blangiardi required unvaccinated city workers to do weekly COVID-testing — which is done during work hours.

“That does require us to move people around,” Titchen added. “It’s a test for two hours, one day a week, and so far we’ve accomplished moving pieces around so that we don’t see a dramatic decreasing our service. So it’s not just one thing that’s causing us to announce these closures, and it’s certainly not only related to COVID, We need more personnel, which is not so easy, there’s a lot of funding issues involved with that.”

Ocean Safety has asked the city for years to add more positions and for more resources. Titchen said five to 10 additional guards on the west and north shores would be helpful and give staff more flexibility.

“We need more personnel, which is not so easy,” he explained. “There’s a lot of funding issues involved with that. There’s a lot of training issues. Then there’s a lot of operational assignment issues that we would face on our side.”

Titchen said the state has the best lifeguards in the world, and tryouts can be grueling.

“We can’t just automatically bring someone in as a lifeguard in the City and County of Honolulu, and then there they go and work on the North Shore,” he said.

He said the goal is to strategically and carefully grow the program over the course of several years. So far they’ve been successful in promoting some personnel to a mobile responder position. “But what we really need is to bring some more people in behind that and make sure we have staffing for the beaches. So, that’s the biggest issue that we face is simply that we’re growing. That’s not unique for an emergency response organization such as ours, that provides critical service. We’re affected by COVID too. How could we not be?”

In addition, he said Ocean Safety needs trucks, units, and facilities too.

“That’s why I say I think this division is very well poised right now to grow under this administration,” he said of the new Mayor Blangiardi administration.

He said approving overtime on days like Friday isn’t ideal, but the best fix, for now.

“We’ll watch we’ll see how we do,” he said. “We’ll continue to do this throughout the winter, and again, hopeful of no tower closures certainly during moments where we expect people to be going and looking for a big surf.”

Ocean Safety promoted internally, (23 additional positions for FY21) and is working with the current Administration to hire more positions to cover the staffing needs. There is significant interest from prospective Lifeguards in our community and we hope to take advantage of this. This Administration wants Ocean Safety to continue to grow and steadily increase and improve its service, and this will require the funding in the next budget.

Honolulu Emergency Services Director Jim Ireland

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If you’re at an unguarded beach or see someone who needs help call 911.

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