HONOLULU (KHON2) — In the early morning hours there are just a handful of beachgoers walking on the sand on Oahu’s North Shore.
Some are unaware that the swell is building and the tide is rising as they bring their kids close to the shoreline to get up close with a 10-foot Hawaiian shore break.
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Most are lucky, and run back just in time, others don’t stand a chance and the wave starts pulling them towards the sea.
If no one sees you get pulled in, the winter waves are big enough to block you from being visible from the shoreline.
At 9 a.m. tower guards arrived and immediately began saving lives by preventing people from entering the water in the first place.
The tower guards have told families to stay far away from the wet sand. They also warn people without swimming fins that they should not enter the shore break and surfers who are planning on going out with the wrong board to think again.
Each day tower guards save thousands of people before they enter the water.
Because Hawaii’s beaches are becoming more and more popular the Dawn to Dusk program was initiated by the City and County of Honolulu. It was meant for tower guards to station their towers from sunrise to sunset.
However, staffing and budget have been issues for Ocean Safety for years.
The slow rollout now has lieutenants and rescue craft operators responding to 911 calls when towers are closed, between 7 and 9 a.m., and 5 to 7 p.m.
The tower guards are not included in the program and leave around 5 p.m. even when the crowds stick around.
“Those two hours are critical to being able to respond to something that could have been prevented,” explains North Shore Neighborhood Board member Racquel Hill, who has been speaking with North Shore lifeguards and supporting them for months, if not years.
Ocean Safety is part of the Emergency Medical Services (EMS) and is the least funded department.
According to the City and County of Honolulu’s 2021 Fiscal Year Operating Budget Honolulu Police were given $312 million, Honolulu Fire $141 million, EMS division $40 million, and Ocean Safety worked with $17 million.
Hill said more should be given to the department especially when the state promotes Hawaii and its beaches and waters to the visitors.
“All of our first responders 1,000% deserve all of the resources and utilities and respect that they need to get their job done,” said Hill. “To see such a gap in that kind of budget concerns me because, in a sense, it kind of devalues what their purpose is.”
Discussions are ongoing if Ocean Safety should become their own department and have control over their budget and requests for things like safety equipment.
In late October, KHON2 was at Shark’s Cove when a swell was building throughout the day. While waiting for an interview with the district’s lieutenant, a set started rolling through. To warn the snorkelers to prepare for the set and to stay away from the rocks, he grabbed a megaphone to relay the message, but it stopped working. He kept trying to get the message out, but the megaphone kept dying out.
“That video is hugely disheartening. It takes away the credibility of what we’re trying to produce, it takes away every part of their prevention,” Hill added. And, you know, then what happens? These guys have to physically throw themselves in treacherous conditions to save someone that could have been prevented, and it wasn’t prevented because they weren’t given the resources that they’re required to have or should have.”
The union for lifeguards, HGEA, said they support the entire department working 10 hours a day, four days a week like mobile responders and lieutenants do now.
But the majority of the department is tower guards, and having guards work longer hours and fewer days means more staff is needed to cover.
“They have had shortages of staff, and their recruitment processes, to be honest, is kind of slow in terms of trying to get lifeguards onboard,” said HGEA executive director Randy Perreira.
Perreira explained, “so that will be a factor, but we’re more than willing and very interested in trying to arrange for that, those extended hours for the tower guards because it provides not only a benefit to employees in terms of the shorter week but clearly a benefit to the public.”
“It’s gonna take a little bit, and again, we look forward to at least beginning the conversation with the city,” he continued.
Councilmember Heidi Tsuneyoshi has been advocating for lifeguards and wants to keep the Dawn to Dusk discussion going.
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“I want to make sure we continue focusing on this transition to make sure that what we’re doing with this Dawn to Dusk program not only works on paper but works in real-time and make sure that our lifeguards have time to respond and that those who are in need of help aren’t waiting too long,” Tsuneyoshi said.