Lifeguards move under Fire Department’s wing

LIHU’E – July 1 marked a landmark transition for Kaua’i’s lifeguards.

Kaua’i County’s Water Safety Section, as it has been known in the Parks and Recreation Division, is now officially part of the organizational structure of the Kaua’i Fire Department.

“They’re doing the same job in the same places, but now they are part of us,” said Fire Chief David Sproat.

“It’s taken years of discussion with the Fire Department, the unions, Parks and Recreation and the lifeguards themselves to get to this point,” said Mayor Maryanne Kusaka. “Everyone comes out of this a winner.” Previously, Kusaka said, water safety was engulfed in the large bureaucracy of Parks and Recreation.

“It wasn’t a good fit,” she said. “We needed greater attention focused on enhancing the skills of our lifeguards.

They are a talented and dedicated group, and they just needed a little more nurturing.” Because they function under the umbrella of health and safety concerns and emergency response, it seemed natural to place lifeguards with the Fire Department.

“Our guys have been working with them to save lives, anyway,” said Sproat. “Why not officially make them a part of the team?” Sproat said the lifeguards will benefit from additional training opportunities and learning alongside fire rescue personnel.

Kaleo Hookano, head of the Water Safety Section, noted, “We’re not parks and we’re not recreation, even though we operate in that arena, We’re in the safety services business.” Hookano said Kaua’i’s beaches are more crowded than ever before with visitors and locals, so “this change couldn’t come at a better time.” Seven drownings have occurred at Kaua’i this year. Five of the victims were tourists.

The lifeguards will become a bureau under the organizational structure of the Fire Department. There are 18 lifeguards already, and the county will hire three more during fiscal year 2000-01.

Additionally, there 10 summer hires are working through Aug. 31 this year.

Dr. Montague Downs, emergency room physician at Wilcox Hospital and co-chairman of the Kauai Water Safety Task Force, said the move “can’t help but enhance the professionalism” of water safety.

“We are constantly working to improve our water safety program,” Kusaka said. “This year, we’re buying an all-terrain vehicle to help us move quickly on larger beaches. And we’ll buy more when we can find the funding.” The county is also erecting two new lifeguard stands — one at Wailua and the other in Kekaha.

While Kauai’s large beach parks have dedicated lifeguards, other beaches are covered on a roving basis. Lifeguards are assigned where they are most needed, based on weather conditions and other factors.

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