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On lifeguards, Ke‘e Beach and saving lives

Act 170. SB 562. Ke’e Beach lifeguards. This isn’t easy to put together and briefly explain but I’ll give it a try. The issue is this: Ke’e Beach is a state beach park.

The state doesn’t employ lifeguards and so County of Kauai Lifeguards guard the beach from a tower there. State employees who conduct their business on state properties enjoy immunity from lawsuits that might occur if there were to be a mishap of some kind.

County employees who conduct their business on state properties do not have that immunity — were it not for Act 170, which has been in effect since Mrs. Kusaka’s mayoral administration in 2002 and which grants county lifeguards immunity unless there were to be gross negligence. (A bit of a silly rider since I can assure you that our phenomenal Kauai lifeguards are not about to be grossly negligent).

The problem is that Act 170 is due to sunset (i.e. Be taken off the books) on June 30. If it does sunset, the county would, under advisement from county attorneys, very likely remove its lifeguards from Ke’e.

SB 562 is the bill which will eliminate the sunset of Act 170. Past experience has shown that the Legislature tends to not eliminate the sunset, but rather whittles things down and defers the sunset for three years. The pressure for this impermanent compromise, as opposed to permanently establishing Act 170, comes from liability attorneys and their lobbyists, who are very reluctant to relinquish any potential lawsuit scenarios. This three-year sunset provision has been in play ever since 2002, and here we are again. Maybe, just maybe, this will be finally be the year that Act 170 becomes permanent as SB 562 proposes.

State beach parks in all four counties are affected by Act 170. County of Maui Lifeguards guard Makena Beach State Bark. County of Hawaii lifeguards guard Hapuna State Beach Park. And City and County of Honolulu lifeguards guard Yokohama Bay State Beach Park, out by remote Kaena Point.

For us on Kauai, losing lifeguard coverage at Ke’e would be an absolute disaster. Before we had lifeguards there we suffered drownings on a regular basis. Since we have had lifeguards there we have had … zero. (And when I make statements like this I always knock on wood).

Try and go out there any day and you’ll see parking that is backed up for at least a quarter-mile and a beach that is packed, particularly after Hanakapiai Trail hikers have come off the trail and want to cool off in the beautiful water.

What they don’t realize is that the barrier reef, which seemingly keeps the swimming area so calm, actually sets up a rip current that will take you out the western portal, non-stop into the open Pacific Ocean. Back when people used to drown there, the bodies usually were not recovered.

Our Ke’e lifeguards have made tens of thousands of preventions, dozens of rescues, and have also performed some incredible first aid for people on the Kalalau trail all the way to the stream crossing in Hanakapiai.

One of our state parks employees collapsed on the trail a few years ago. Our Ke’e lifeguards got the word, rushed to him, performed CPR, shocked him with their AED — and after some medical treatments our loyal employee is back taking care of the trail.

Broken arms and legs are a regular occurrence on the trail and our lifeguards have been there for many of them — going well beyond what we usually think of as lifeguard duties. They have also played key roles during Hanakaiai stream flash flood conditions.

SB 562 has made it through its first 2017 Senate committee. It is next to be heard by the Senate Judiciary Committee. The date of the hearing hasn’t been yet been set. The Legislature website is quite user-friendly in regards to (a) following the progress of the bill and (be) submitting on-line testimony once the committee hearing is scheduled. You log onto www.capitol.hawaii.gov, type in SB 562 in the box which asks for the Bill #, hit the “Go” button — and follow directions. I urge interested readers to take a little time and log on a couple of times a week and see if the judiciary committee hearing has been scheduled.

If it has, please take a few minutes to submit testimony. At one point you have to create a password for yourself, but once you’ve done that it’s quite straightforward. Please ask the committee chair, vice chair, and members to pass SB 562 for the sake of human lives.

One additional and somewhat confusing note: As is often the cases with Legislative bills, there is a “sister bill,” HB 654, running in the House of Representatives side of the Legislature.

HB 654 is pretty much identical to SB 562. My current understanding is that the Senate version (i.e. 562) is the one that “has the legs” — but if you have the time to track HB 654, and if you see that it’s going to be heard at a House committee (it’s currently listed as being assigned to the House Judiciary Committee), please feel welcome to send in your written testimony to that committee as well.

Confusing? You bet. That’s how government wheels turn, and we never know which turn may be the critical one that can run us over.

If we miss that turn, well, Ke’e could ride off into the western sunset carrying her beachgoers and swimmers and snorkelers right along with her.

Our Kauai legislators — Reps. Tokioka, Morikawa, and Nakamura along with Senate President Kouchi — are very aware of SB 562 (and HB 654 for that matter) and are on full-alert to doing all they can to make sure that it passes and that Act 170 doesn’t get terminated.

Our county councilors and mayors (from all islands) are also on full-alert to get the bill passed. And yes, some legislators are opposed to it for the reason I mentioned above. So once again, if you have some moments I urge you to submit your “Please pass SB 562” testimony in the on-line manner I’ve described. Mahalo.

•••

Monty Downs, M.D., is president of the Kauai Lifeguard Association.

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