When it comes to water safety, Dr. Downs knows best


• Author’s note: Aloha, and welcome to what we hope will be an interesting and educational new feature in The Garden Island. TGI was represented at our recent Kauai Water Safety conference on Jan. 26, and felt it could contribute to our safety effort. I hope that I and some fellow contributors will succeed in keeping water safety on the front burner for all of us. After all, we’re surrounded by water, and it can be rough water! We’ll be writing the column every other Wednesday and my plan is to chat about the things I’ve learned over my 15 years of working at this issue.

Many of you know that I’m an ER physician, and it has been my witnessing of affected families’ extreme suffering that has led me to be an advocate for water safety. Statistics show that about 80 percent of Kaua‘i’s drowning victims are visitors, and therefore much of the work that I do is focused on getting the visitor industry up to speed in terms of spreading the word — or rather two words: “Be careful.”

For some reason it’s well known that when people go on vacation they (we) often “leave our common sense at home.” Also, when we go on vacation we are going to places with conditions that are unfamiliar to us. As water safety advocates, we may not be able to do as much as we’d like about the former, but regarding the latter, we can and must find ways to give our visitors — whom we’ve worked very hard to solicit to come to our home, and upon whom many of us depend for our very living — the information that can help them avoid disaster.

Water safety has been my specialty, but I’m of course aware that other disaster-potential elements exist here — like hiking trails and simply driving. We can explore how to address these other areas in future columns, but the first few columns will be on water safety, my specialty.

Did I say “explore?” That’s our No. 1 initiative for 2007, namely to get the Web site kauaiexplorer.com on everybody’s lips — every concierge, every bell-hop, every activities desk consultant, every publication, every guide book, every rental car, every hotel room, every B&B host, every local or kama‘aina who has family visit here — you get the idea.

This site has a daily update of water conditions, along with safety tips maps showing guarded beaches, videos of how to handle yourself when you’re caught in a rip current and many other features. Many of our visitors in this era are computer literate, if not computer dependent, and we therefore feel that the Internet is the medium that may work best among the various prevention-oriented tools. Well, second best, second of course to talking with a lifeguard or a local about the water conditions.

Guide books are, of course, another big medium, particularly since visitors often want to “get off the beaten path.” I’m the same way when I go visit somewhere else — I feel proud and happy when I find an enjoyable activity that isn’t on the tour bus stop.

It’s therefore a challenge for the guide books — which do a very robust business — to carefully weigh how much to promote places such as Queens Bath or Kipu Falls versus the fact that our visitors are regularly killed and maimed at these sites. Frankly, some of the guide books don’t meet this challenge responsibly.

I mentioned that about 80 percent of Kaua‘i’s drowning victims are visitors. That means 20 percent are residents/locals, and the devastation for affected local families is certainly not second to visitors’ families’ devastation when a family member drowns.

My own focus on working towards visitors getting helpful preventive information feels inadequate and falls flat not only when a visitor drowns, but also when one of our local families gets ravaged by a loss. Like Peter, Paul and Mary sang: “Too many people have died.”

I close this first column by thanking The Garden Island for creating this new column, this opportunity to spread the words of Aloha and of Be Careful. I plan, once I get some of my own concerns and interests established, to have lifeguards write some of their tales. You won’t believe how remarkable their work can be.

Once again: kauaiexplorer.com.

• Dr. Monty Downs contributes a biweekly column every other Wednesday. His next column will be on Acts 170 and 190, both set to sunset on May 31, and why they are critical to water safety on Kaua‘i.


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