Hawaii Lifeguards: Longer Hours Could Save Lives
Hawai‘i’s north shore is expecting a huge swell today, bringing waves big enough to hold The Eddie for the first time in six years. The contest is named after the legendary Hawaiian surfer Eddie Aikau, who was also the first lifeguard stationed at Waimea Bay. Today there are three, with more than 25 along the North Shore. But as HPR’s Molly Solomon reports, there’s a renewed focus on their working hours.
Jason Bitzer rushes into the water about once a day. "Today we had one rescue for two people," he said. "So it was an average day."
Bitzer is a Hawai‘i lifeguard. He spends his summers at a post in Waik?k?. But in the winter months, he’s here: on the north shore of O‘ahu. "The north shore is obviously sensationalized since we have the big surf, especially with an El Nino winter," said Bitzer. "I've had other guards tell me it hasn't been this large of surf since 1998. So we're put on the line up here for a good majority of the winter."
But under their current contract, lifeguards like Bitzer, are only on duty from 9 a.m. to 5:30 p.m.. Those hours leave beaches unattended when plenty of locals and tourists are still in the water. He says it’s pretty normal to see people in the ocean by dawn, with many staying until sunset. "Things don't happen in the times you want them to. A lot of times I've had off duty rescues, my friends have too all over the islands," said Bitzer. "People can get in trouble if you don't have that person with a skill set. It's not something that the average person can just handle themselves."
Bitzer recalls a scary moment eight years ago, when he saw a surfer go down at Pipeline, just 30 minutes after lifeguards had finished their shifts for the day. "It was a Japanese surfer in 2008, his name was Masa," said Bitzer. "And it was the second time I've actually found an unconscious person at Pipeline."
Bitzer, who was off duty at the time, immediately sprang into action, diving into the 20-foot wave surf. He secured Masa on a body board and paddled back to shore with the help of some nearby swimmers. "I opened up his airway as we were getting to the beach. We started doing compressions and oxygen," he said. "Luckily the lifeguards were actually in the parking lot at 6:15 p.m., 45 minutes after they were supposed to get off. They opened up the tower and administered oxygen, and it was a full recovery."
But not everyone is so lucky. Just two weeks ago, a visitor from Maryland drowned at 6 p.m. at Waimea Bay, a half hour after lifeguards had left their towers. Bitzer and others who patrol the North Shore took to social media, calling on the city to consider expanding their hours. "Something can be done if someone's there."
"When you have lifeguards here, you're going to save lives," said Shayne Enright, the public information office for Honolulu’s Emergency Services department. She says the idea of expanding lifeguard hours from dawn to dusk is something Ocean Safety is considering. "Public safety is our number one responsibility and we wouldn't be out here if it wasn't," said Enright. "But to do that you have to take a look at everything: budget, funding, staffing."
In other words, it’s a money issue. Hawai‘i lifeguards are in the closing days of finalizing their first contract as a collective bargaining unit. It’s not clear whether the length of a work shift will be part of that deal.