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
“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
“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
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
“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
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.
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
“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
“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
* 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
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,”
Not all agree that this translates into good news,
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
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
He says that even though the county is still grappling with the
issue of liability, he believes that its hands are not completely
With KFD vehicles allotted for this year’s budget, lifeguards could
do roving patrols of Ke’e and other notorious state beach parks.
can provide some of that coverage without having a full-time lifeguard on the
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
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.
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,”
The deceptive calm of Kaua’i beaches like Ke’e is why
education is key, Kanoho adds.
The education can be sobering.
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.
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
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
“And it’s kind of a fight with the tourism authority people
because they don’t really like the reality check type safety
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
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