HONOLULU (KHON2) — A 50-year-old Arizona man died on Monday, Jan. 24, at Ke Iki Beach on Oahu’s North Shore.
On Jan. 15, an Idaho man nearly drowned at Ke Iki Beach, but two professional surfers were able to assist the man until lifeguards arrived and rescued him in the dark.
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Many rescues have occurred at Ke Iki Beach in recent years, including one that spread across social media when professional surfer Mikey Wright rescued a woman. A few days after that, lifeguard Fred Booth was on patrol and saw a woman get swept in.
The nearest lifeguard tower is about a half mile down the road at Rock Pile.
On Wednesday, Jan. 26, a 52-year-old visitor drowned at Black Rock in Kaanapali on Maui, which has become a hotspot for ocean-related fatalities over the years and is also an unguarded beach.
The Hawaii Department of Health (DOH) injury prevention branch said data shows more and more visitors are drowning every year. According to the data, there were 93 drownings in 2019 — which was a new record.
“There’s a huge number of snorkel-related deaths, and 91% of them are non-residents,” said Dr. Dan Galanis, DOH Emergency Medical Services & Injury Prevention System Branch epidemiologist.
As of June 2021, there were 27 fatal ocean drownings. The DOH said it equated to one visitor drowning each week.
“Going back to 1995, and five-year periods, this red line is the number of fatal drownings related to snorkeling, and it’s just crazy. This is a tenfold increase over a 25-year period,” Dr. Galanis explained while pointing at the drowning data. He said other ocean fatalities statistics such as swimming, surfing or free diving remained about the same year over year.
Dr. Galanis added that more education and funding are needed to save lives.
Honolulu Ocean Safety said it uses the DOH’s data to figure out where to put towers, ambulances and mobile responders.
“The dynamics of tourism is changing. The dynamics of what social media influence has on where people go is changing, and so we would change with that as well,” said Dr. Jim Ireland, Honolulu EMS director.
Spots like Tracks, Electric Beach, Sharks Cove, Three Tables and China Walls are all popular unguarded places that were quiet in the past. Rescue tubes were added at some locations and have helped, but staffing and money for additional towers is an ongoing problem
Honolulu Ocean Safety hopes to hire 25 guards from its latest recruit class.
“We’ll just keep following that up with more hiring because we do need to expand and as the extended hours conditions dictate, we want to have more mobile responders out there,” Dr. Ireland added.
For now, lieutenants respond in trucks, and guards patrol on ATVs at places like Ke Iki. Water rescue crafts have also become more helpful.
“I think the expanded mobile responder program has really helped beach coverage, ocean coverage, as well as the jet skis, but a fixed tower does offer another dimension of coverage, and so that’s why we look at expansion, we look at all aspects of the operation,” continued Dr. Ireland.
Lifeguards cannot be at every beach or location, but mobile coverage has increased across Oahu and other ideas are being discussed to keep unguarded beaches safe.
“We’ve discussed drones and cameras, and I think we continue to discuss that and operationally how that could fit in with what we’re already doing. So, I think everything’s on the table, ocean safety has a boat as well. But how that all fits together operationally is something we’re continually working on,” Dr. Ireland explained.
Dr. Ireland also said an additional ambulance station is being considered for the North Shore and Windward sides.
“There’s two things we look at. On the EMS side for where we’re going to deploy ambulances or where we needed to plan on this one is volume, how many calls there are and, clearly, the most calls is in the downtown area, but we also look at geography and how far is it between ambulance stations and that’s why the North Shore and the Windward side are also on the list of potentially future ambulance stations because it is so far from Kahuku to Kaneohe, and again on the North Shore, Waialua and Kahuku are the only two EMS stations,” stated Dr. Ireland.Dr. Jim Ireland, Honolulu EMS director
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Lifeguards encourage all visitors to go to a guarded beach or ask lifeguards questions before entering the water.