Drowning deaths down

LIHU’E – You’ll forgive Kalani Vierra if he is reluctant to brag about the island’s plummeting drowning rate.

It’s because November through February are a lifeguard’s busiest months, and there are still several days left before it can be reported that there were just four ocean drownings in waters off Kaua’i this calendar year.

If that figure holds, though, it will mark a record in recent ocean-safety history, as Kaua’i has experienced double-digit drowning rates for the past several years, and averaged nearly seven a year for the past 32 years.

“I cannot predict what’s going to happen, but we’re going to do the best job we can to keep the drowning rate down,” said Vierra, supervisor of the Kauai Fire Department’s Ocean Safety Bureau.

Through the third week of December, county lifeguards had made 191 rescues, over half of those in the Hanalei area alone.

Although the ocean drowning rate this year dipped to a figure that can be counted on one hand, Vierra aims to make certain that even more is done to prevent ocean death on his watch.

Additional manpower, training and equipment have come, and Vierra thanks former Mayor Maryanne Kusaka and former Fire Chief David Sproat for their efforts in securing those resources.

“They supported water safety a lot,” he said.

But Vierra wants more.

“I feel we’re still shorthanded right now,” to the point where if two guards call in sick, Vierra might find himself manning a beach. He’d “do that in a heartbeat,” because he would rather be outside than doing paperwork at a desk.

But he looks to Maui, where 40 guards man seven towers. There are 26 lifeguards for seven Kaua’i towers, from Ha’ena to Kekaha. And with the equipment assigned to the various towers, lifeguarding is getting to be a two- or three-person proposition, Vierra observes.

In fact, on Saturday, Dec. 21, he’ll hand-deliver a new all-terrain vehicle (ATV) to the Ha’ena Beach Park tower, along with around an hour of training for the crew.

Kekaha also has an ATV, and Kealia will get the newest one as soon as the trailer arrives. Jet-skis are stationed at Kekaha Beach Park, Po’ipu Beach Park, Kealia Beach Park and Hanalei Beach Park.

Of the 191 rescues so far this year, 83 were accomplished utilizing jet-skis.

Since the Ocean Safety Bureau was placed under the KFD umbrella a few years ago, the county has hired six new lifeguards, and placed lifeguards at three previously unguarded beaches: Kealia, Kekaha and Ha’ena, Vierra said.

He points to three factors for the reduced number of drownings this year:

– “Prevention is probably the biggest one.” Lifeguards and other local water people, be they surfers or fishermen, practice lots of preventive lifeguarding, Vierra said;

– “Education is the second key,” with Vierra hoping to do even more by instituting an ocean-safety awareness week in the schools (similar to KPD’s fire-prevention week). The county’s junior lifeguard program this summer trained nearly 200 youngsters in swimming, water safety and rescue techniques;

– “We stepped up our training this year, with the jet-ski program,” said Vierra, who added that with the new equipment and training the lifeguards must be professional and experienced operators.

The day of the laid-back lifeguard is gone, he said.

The bureau also has four brand-new, four-wheel-drive Ford Ranger pickup trucks, and a total of six trucks all together. A new jet-ski this summer brings that total to seven. There are three ATVs.

The equipment helps lifeguards expand coverage areas and rescue capabilities, with the jet-skis allowing guards to travel miles in either direction from their towers.

“I am totally confident of my lifeguards’ abilities,” because of how they have been trained, and because continuing training will make them the best they can be, he said.

“To me, training is the key.” Being part of KFD has been good for both agencies, he feels.

Staff Writer Paul C. Curtis can be reached at mailto:pcurtis@pulitzer.net or 245-3681 (ext. 224).

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