Ke’e visitor might be alive if beach patrolled by lifeguards

KE’E BEACH— Had there been a lifeguard stationed at Ke’e Beach Thursday, John

Telfer most likely would not have lost his life in waters off the popular North

Shore beach.

“It’s better than a 50 percent chance he’d be alive today,”

says Patrick Durkin, owner of Aquatic Safety Management.

As it was, county

lifeguards had to rush to the scene from their post at Hanalei Bay, a trip that

took 20 minutes.

Telfer, a visitor from San Jose, Calif., apparently saved

his wife from drowning, but afterwards was himself pulled out to sea by a rip

current. He washed up at another strip of sand west of Ke’e where the

lifeguards were unable to revive him.

The tragedy makes it painfully clear

that something needs to be done at Ke’e, where the question of liability has

kept lifeguards off the beach for years, Durkin says.

Ke’e is a

state-operated beach. The state historically has not placed lifeguards at its

beach parks. But a bill passed in the early 90’s allowed county lifeguards to

guard parks such as Ke’e. The bill also provided $1 million to pay their

salaries and insurance.

Having lifeguards at Ke’e exposed the county to

costly lawsuits and prompted Mayor Maryanne Kusaka to discontinue the

service.

“They were for millions of dollars, lots of money—money that we

can’t continue to put out there, although we’d like to support as much as

possible the beach patrol,” Kusaka says.

Once Kusaka pulled the plug on

lifeguard services at Ke’e, she began lobbying for legislation that would

provide the same sort of immunity from lawsuits for the counties that the state

enjoys.

A lifeguard bill indemnifying—securing against damages—the

counties and supported by Kusaka was vetoed this year by Gov. Ben Cayetano.

Still, she is hopeful.

“We continue to work with the Legislature, with the

state Department of Land and Natural Resources and the Attorney General’s

office to get a bill that will allow us to work with the state more

completely,” she says.

Even if the legality problem were worked out between

the state and county, the money that was once allocated by the state for the

Kaua’i lifeguard program is gone, says Ralston Nagata, administrator for DLNR’s

parks division.

“So if Kaua’i said, ‘You know what, forget the immunity, we

want to provide services and we want to be paid,’ well, we don’t have the money

to pay them,” he says. After Kaua’i and Maui pulled out, the budget for the

state-sponsored lifeguard program went from $1 million to a half

million.

O’ahu and Hawai’i are the only islands left that still have city

or county lifeguards on state beach parks, Nagata says.

Durkin says that

public safety must override the fear of liability as a priority.

“Are we

going to withhold public safety measures at the beaches until the counties are

perfectly safe from lawyers? I don’t think that’s good thinking. I don’t think

it’s morally right,” he says.

Still, Durkin says that while the liability

issue has foundered at Cayetano’s doorstep, much progress has been made on

water safety at the county level, especially after Kusaka first took office in

1994.

“I know that immunity… is at issue now, but I think we’ve got to

look at how far we’ve come in the bigger picture.”

Durkin says when he

retired as a county lifeguard in 1989, there was one weekend lifeguard at

Hanalei.

“Now look at it. Two full-time stations, one at the Pavilion and

one at Pine Trees. A Waverunner on the beach and a corps of professional

lifeguards,” he says.

Kusaka says that water safety has always been at the

very top of her list in terms of priorities. Here is a list of her

accomplishments:

* For this year, she took staffing positions away from

Public Works and Elderly Affairs in order to bolster staff in the lifeguard

program. Three new lifeguard positions, along with a new ATV for the Hanalei

Beach crew will be added this fiscal year, costing an additional

$100,000.

This year is the third in a five-year safety plan wherein at

least two new lifeguard positions are added every year.

* The program is

expanding, not just in staffing but in area covered. The new lifeguard

positions will eventually be placed at Kealia Beach, which will be turned over

to the county before the end of the year, Kusaka says.

* Kusaka also put

$13,000 into producing a new glossy brochure on water safety, which is being

distributed to various businesses, including hotels.

Durkin says that

recent efforts have capped the Kaua’i drowning and near-drowning rates at 10

to 12 per year.

“That is only significant if you consider that visitor

traffic to the island has increased steadily in the past three to five years,”

he says.

Not all agree that this translates into good news,

however.

Sue Kanoho, executive director of the Kaua’i Visitors Bureau, says

that continuing on a status quo course will not work.

“We are concerned on

the (KVB) board about the numbers—it doesn’t get any better, it either stays

the same or gets worse,” she says. “To me, that designates a significant

problem.”

Indeed, Kaua’i has the highest number of drownings of all the

islands, nearly 200 since 1970.

“It’s not a claim we are proud of,” says

Fire Chief David Sproat. But he says when compared to O’ahu, which has 10 times

as many lifeguards as Kaua’i does and less beach area to cover, “what we have

is a pretty small force.”

Starting July 1, the lifeguard program will be

taken out of the county recreation department and put under the aegis of the

Kaua’i Fire Department.

Chief Sproat says that the program will be brought

into line with KFD standards.

“I think they (the lifeguards) do a good job

already but maybe it can improve,” he says.

“I think we are going to be

able to be a stronger voice,’ he says. “Parks and Recreation kind of got lost

in the Public Works Department and didn’t get enough attention paid to their

needs.”

He says that even though the county is still grappling with the

issue of liability, he believes that its hands are not completely

tied.

With KFD vehicles allotted for this year’s budget, lifeguards could

do roving patrols of Ke’e and other notorious state beach parks.

“Maybe we

can provide some of that coverage without having a full-time lifeguard on the

beach.”

One thing everyone agrees upon is that warning signs alone will not

stop people from entering dangerous waters.

“The mayor has up at all the

beaches water safety signs. Nobody looks at them and it’s terrible,” says

Kanoho.

Strangely enough, signs are all that are legally required to

immunize the county and state from liability.

Nagata points to state Act

90, a law that relieves both the county and state from any liability as long as

they have put up the mandated strong current and dangerous shore breaks signs

at their beaches.

“So there could be an argument that as long as the state

and county have that there’s no need for lifeguards. But we are not advocating

that,” he says.

Neither is the county. And neither is Durkin.

“Any

immunity has to be attached to more, not less in the way of prevention. Signs

can’t rescue a person in distress,” Durkin says.

Even though it is an

uphill battle and even though some people are bound to drown no matter what

preventative measures are in place, Kusaka and others say that there is a moral

responsibility to keep trying.

“We invite people to come here and

unfortunately the people who suffer the most are our unsuspecting naive

visitors because the ocean is so inviting and it can be very treacherous,”

Kusaka says.

The deceptive calm of Kaua’i beaches like Ke’e is why

education is key, Kanoho adds.

The education can be sobering.

Since

1970, 27 people have drowned off of Hanakapi’ai; 19 at Lumaha’i. At supposedly

gentle beaches like Lydgate, over 21 people have drowned.

Ke’e Beach Park

looks innocent enough. Indeed, thousands of tourists flock to the location

every day. But with sand filling the lagoon this time of year, snorkelers have

been seen venturing out along the channel. And at the channel’s head is where

the strong rip current starts, says Hanalei Fire Captain Bob Kaden.

The

message? Swim at your own risk.

“We need to coach, not chastise them and

let them know about the dangers,” Kaden says. “Whether you’re a waiter,

fireman or a person working in a store, you need to bring it up

constantly.”

Chief Sproat says that tourists he and his staff have talked

to like to be informed.

“They like the knowledge of whatever the stated

cautions are and the conditions—they like to hear that.”

He adds that he

has lobbied hard to try to get a safety message into the carriers who bring the

tourists.

“And it’s kind of a fight with the tourism authority people

because they don’t really like the reality check type safety

messages.”

Kanoho admits that delivering that message is walking a fine

line for the tourism industry.

“You have to get that message out of,

‘You’ve got to be careful,’ but then again we don’t want the island to get the

reputation you go into the water and two seconds later you’re swept out to

sea.”

Still she has been encouraging education for hotel concierges,

activities desk people and water sports companies to inform visitors about the

dangers without scaring them off.

For Kusaka, it is better that the

visitors get what they need from those people at the front end than getting

help from the Fire Department, the counseling people at the hospitals, and the

emergency doctors, i.e. the people at the other end.

“We have to face the

families … it’s just so difficult to calm people when they came here to have

fun and then have to go home with a corpse,” Kusaka says. “That is so

heart-breaking and it leaves a very bad taste in your mouth for this

place.”

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