Lifeguards doing all they can to save lives

Last evening I got back from a terrific weeklong family vacation (in Kansas City of all places, watching one of my sons participate in the NAIA basketball national championship tournament).

I arrived home refreshed and ready to go back to my difficult and well-paid job as an ER doctor, and ready to resume my leadership role in trying to prevent drownings here on Kauai.

Unfortunately, I was greeted with the news that three visitors drowned during the week I was away. My feeling of refreshment instantly disappeared and a numbing sensation of starting all over again from square one took hold.

This isn’t the first time I’ve experienced this setback. For a long time, drownings have come in sets, just as waves do.

We can have periods of months with no drownings, and we start feeling some cautious optimism that Kauai’s ocean safety programs, professional and volunteer, are making a difference.

Then we experience a rash of drownings that leave us all dazed, saddened and — in the case of our ocean safety advocacy team — demoralized.

But hey, this isn’t about me. This is about the three acutely grieving families.

This is also about our volunteer programs and our visitor industry and our citizens: We’re doing a lot. Are we doing enough? Are there things that we aren’t doing that we should be doing in order to help our visitors — who are the lifeblood of our economy, not to mention family members like you and I — avoid having their dream vacation to Hawaii become devastation and catastrophe? And, this is about our county government and our fire department: They’re doing a lot. Are they doing enough?

The one group that is doing enough is our lifeguards themselves. They are diligent not only about the beaches they are guarding, but also about — when the call comes — scrambling a jet ski and getting their bodies slammed as they charge through rough seas to get to a remote beach where someone is in trouble.

Perhaps even more importantly, they engaged in over 87,000 “preventions” and 173,000 “public contacts” in 2014, serving the 1,667,505 people who attended our lifeguarded beaches.

I could write a very lengthy article reviewing programs that are in place and trying to analyze what more we can do, beginning with myself.

Instead, however, I’m going to focus in on one single issue, namely the disparity between lifeguard pay and the pay for firefighters and police officers. The disparity is severe and it has driven one excellent lifeguard after another to seek a different job, one that can better support their family. This exodus has been particularly acute in the last few months, and as things currently stand we have 48 lifeguard positions and at last count only 39 of them are filled!

Our Ocean Safety Administrators and supervisors are working feverishly to refill the empty positions, reviewing applications and qualifications and putting applicants through their required agility testing and personal interviews.

Thanks to their efforts the vacant positions will be filled — but with new (albeit enthusiastic) young watermen and waterwomen replacing wise and seasoned veterans.

I ask our government and fire department and union leaders to take on this pay disparity issue with urgency. It is a statewide issue and great leadership and commitment will be required. Consultation will have to take place with the United States Lifeguard Association, which has been very influential in achieving this pay parity in other states.

In the last week we have all seen how high the stakes are.

Monty Downs, M.D., President, Kauai Lifeguard Association

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