Chief who brought lifeguards to Fire Department retires

Maui County Ocean Safety Officer Kris Ivary sprints across the sand at Kamaole I Beach Park Wednesday afternoon after being alerted by beachgoers that a woman with a stand-up paddleboard might be in distress. He reached the woman in shallow water and deemed she was not having trouble. With the recent retirement of Colin Yamamoto, the Fire Department’s first battalion chief of ocean safety, Fire Chief Jeff Murray said last week that he was “very close” to announcing a new leader for the division overseeing county lifeguards. Murray credited Yamamoto for smoothly managing the transition of lifeguards from the Department of Parks and Recreation to the Fire Department. -- The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

Colin Yamamoto said he felt somewhat guilty retiring from the Maui Fire Department at the end of the year with several issues such as lifeguard liability protections and union negotiations still up in the air.

The workload and battle for the county’s first Fire Department battalion chief of ocean safety, however, had begun to take its toll.

“I had 30 years in the Fire Department, and I was basically overworking myself to the point where it wasn’t healthy,” Yamamoto said earlier this month. “I contemplated retiring last year, but because there was so many things to do, I committed to staying at least another year. But no matter what, even if I stayed one more year or two more years, you’re probably going to feel the same way. There’s so much more to do. At some point you have to say it’s time to go.

“But at least I know I got some major things done.”

Yamamoto, 57, led the transition of bringing lifeguards, formerly with the Ocean Safety Division of the Department of Parks and Recreation, into the Fire Department since his appointment as battalion chief in 2014. Fire Chief Jeff Murray credited him with laying the foundation for the merger. On Tuesday, Murray said he was “very close” to announcing a new leader of the division.

When people start drowning, it sends a wrong message. That’s why it’s important to minimize drownings in Hawaii because it hurts the perception that Hawaii is safe. — Colin Yamamoto, retired Maui Fire Department battalion chief

“It was a really long process, and it was not his fault,” Murray said. “There were a lot of things that needed to be ironed out beforehand, which we learned didn’t have time for that merger to go smoothly. It was definitely a challenging role, and we’re very thankful he did everything he could.”

It took more than seven months for Murray just to pen the job requirements for the position. Yamamoto, who spent a decade as a paramedic and 13 years as Paia fire captain, was selected for his experience and work ethic.

“I didn’t have anybody to teach me, so I had to learn it,” he said. “It took me a good two years to learn the issues and how to address it. It’s a lot of work for the Fire Department because they have to deal with a different union.

“However, it does bring more structure to ocean safety, which is what they needed.”

Maui lifeguards tended to be known for their “beach boy” image, said Yamamoto. The transition of lifeguards from the parks to the Fire Department meant moving into a paramilitary structure and culture.

Yamamoto taught a customer service class for every lifeguard and recalled one class during which he dressed in a tank top with “bus’ up shorts and one cap.”

“I dressed really bad because they’re all used to seeing me in my white uniform,” he said. “They look at me, and everyone is kind of like shocked. I said, ‘So what are you guys thinking right now.’ They’re like, ‘Why are you dressed like that?’ I said, ‘Does how I look affect what you perceive? How you look on the tower will determine the first impression you give the public. When they come up to you to ask a question, it’ll affect their perception of you. That’s why I need you guys to look good, be in uniform, no pukas and all clean shaven.’ “

Yamamoto also asked the class for 20 qualities of a good ocean safety officer. He explained that it was crucial every lifeguard follow them because it would lead to public support.

In 2016, the Maui County Council voted to give lifeguards a pay raise as part of an arbitration decision. The council was the last in the state to pass funding legislation for the arbitration award and drew statewide media attention from supporters throughout Hawaii.

“When you do good, you make all lifeguards appear good,” he said. “But I told them we’re not going to get public support if you don’t do these 20 things. I knew the culture had to change to get them to buy in.”

Yamamoto’s work appeared to pay off when the Travel Channel aired a one-hour special on Maui lifeguards in November. The show “Maui Beach Rescue” followed an “elite squad of lifeguards” during the first two weeks of June at Hanakaoo, Puu Kekaa, Makena and Kanaha beaches, according to TV Guide.

“They’re the best lifeguards in the world,” Yamamoto says in a trailer for the show.

Among his other accomplishments, Yamamoto was instrumental in establishing a rescue tube program on Maui beaches that has saved numerous lives. The county averages 12 to 25 drownings per year. Most victims are visitors.

Rotary clubs and hotel associations have helped fund and install 74 tubes throughout the island and are working to add more and expand to Lanai, Yamamoto said. He reminded members of the public that the rescue tubes should not be tampered with and that 911 callers should identify where they are and look for the three-digit location code that is on every rescue tube pole.

Yamamoto coordinated the Maui County Fire Fighters Relief Association, which has given out roughly $30,000 to at least 40 children and families battling a physical medical condition.

There were a few things that the retired battalion chief wished he had completed before retirement.

While he was able to extend lifeguard work hours by 15 minutes, other major union issues still need to be negotiated. Union negotiations between the Fire Department and lifeguards are only about halfway done, primarily because of delays with the transfer of lifeguards from the parks to Fire Department.

Murray said negotiations will be an ongoing issue, and he plans to have the next ocean safety battalion chief tighten up personal coverages and upgrade the operations manual.

“There’s a lot of things that need to be addressed moving forward,” Murray said. “A lot of internal things and the processes of running a business. There’s always some growing pains, and people have to be flexible on all sides and remember the number one thing: What is our mission and who do we serve.”

Funding for ocean safety advertising, additional lifeguards and towers as well as legal protections continue to be concerns for Yamamoto.

Yamamoto recalled his disappointment with his meeting last month with Lahaina residents about possibly moving the county Hanakaoo (Canoe) Beach Park lifeguard tower to the vicinity of Puu Kekaa (Black Rock) in Kaanapali. Residents at the meeting unanimously rejected the idea and said the state and Kaanapali resorts should fund a new tower at Black Rock.

Yamamoto said it would take three to 10 years to get lifeguards at the beach. He said Kua Bay on the Big Island has been lobbying unsuccessfully for lifeguards for the past four years.

“They didn’t realize this was an opportunity for the community to save lives,” he said. “It wasn’t about us versus them, it was about saving lives.

“I fully support that it’s a state responsibility and the Kaanapali hotels should take some responsibility on it, but the community had an opportunity to save lives and they chose not to.”

Yamamoto criticized the Hawai’i Tourism Authority for its marketing spending and its limited efforts to keep visitors safe. He helped usher in ocean safety videos to Kahului Airport and Maui hotel rooms in 2014.

“I feel we’re at the saturation point for the amount of visitors we can handle,” he said. “It’s to the point where if any more visitors come, it’s affecting the quality of life on residents.”

Yamamoto said visitors come to Hawaii for its weather, beaches and nice people, but also its safety.

“When people start drowning, it sends a wrong message,” he said. “That’s why it’s important to minimize drownings in Hawaii because it hurts the perception that Hawaii is safe.”

Yamamoto said he plans to continue supporting lifeguards and ocean safety through the Hawaiian Lifeguard Association as well as advisory committees and groups. He said the only thing he asks in return is for lifeguards to do their job and do it well — and give the best customer service they can.

“I kind of embraced ocean safety,” he said. “And the camaraderie between all the ocean safety leaders throughout Hawaii is unreal. It’­s very unique.”

* Chris Sugidono can be reached at