Clubs struggle to stop rescue tube vandalism

Lifesaving devices that are placed by Rotary Club members have been broken, stolen

A broken rescue tube pole lies on the ground at D.T. Fleming Beach in West Maui on Saturday, one of two poles that had to be replaced at the beach. Rotary Clubs in West and South Maui are trying to stop the vandalism and removal of rescue tubes, which serve as lifesaving measures at beaches without lifeguard towers or outside of lifeguard-monitoring hours. Photo courtesy of Mariko Higashi

In July 2018, two rescue tubes helped four swimmers stay afloat in rough conditions off Keawakapu Beach until lifeguards on Jet Skis could carry them to shore.

The beach is one of several in South Maui without lifeguards, which is why Rotary Club members installed rescue tubes there in 2017, and why they’re now trying to stop the vandalism and theft of these lifesaving devices.

“It’s an ongoing problem,” said Dennis Bagshaw, chairman of the Rotary Club of Kihei-Wailea’s Rescue Tube program. “We’re having problems with everything from breaking the flags off of the top to actual removal of the rescue tubes and the pole that they’re hooked to.”

Keawakapu Beach has become a vandalism hot spot for the tubes. In 2017, Rotarians installed six tubes along the South Maui beach. Eventually, a couple went missing, so the club replaced them. Then it happened again. The club replaced three or four before realizing that “this is a fight we’re not going to win,” Bagshaw said. Currently, the beach has no tubes.

But Bagshaw said the club decided to reinstall the tubes because there have been so many rescue calls at that beach.

Members of Rotary Clubs of Lahaina Sunrise, Lahaina and Lahaina Sunset gather to install the first of several rescue tube stations at Launiupoko Beach Park in February. Those with experience, including Tori Taylor (left) and David Ristau (in foreground), demonstrated the steps before the group broke up into smaller teams. Rotary Club of Lahaina Sunset past president Mariko Higashi said the tubes cost $175 apiece and of the 33 tubes that club members have installed between February and April, nine have had to be replaced. Most incidents have occurred at Puamana, Ukumehame and Papalaua beaches. The Maui News / MATTHEW THAYER photo

“That’s a place where they are needed, and if people are taking them away, rescues aren’t being made, and we may lose people there,” he said.

The rescue tube movement started on Kauai in 2008, when an emergency room doctor and some Rotary Club members began installing tubes on remote, unguarded beaches. The movement has since spread to other islands. On Maui, former Ocean Safety Battalion Chief Colin Yamamoto helped Rotary Club members draw up an agreement with the county to install the tubes.

The bright yellow foam tubes are about 50 inches long, with a tether that can drape across a rescuer’s shoulder. They can keep three adults afloat, allowing a Good Samaritan to pull a distressed swimmer to shore or buying time until first responders can arrive. They’re not meant to replace lifeguards but serve as a backup measure at unguarded beaches.

Bagshaw said the Kihei-Wailea club has placed 42 tubes from Kalama Park to Keawakapu Beach. The first documented rescue using the tubes was on Dec. 29, 2017, at Keawakapu. The tubes were used again in a pair of rescues along the southern end of Keawakapu fronting the Wailea Ekahi Village condos on Jan. 24, 2018.

Bagshaw said the tubes were used in rescues nine times in 2018, including a July 1 incident in which four swimmers clung to rescue tubes until they could be rescued at Keawakapu. He didn’t know of any this year, except for a Sept. 8 incident at Koki Beach in Hana where bystanders used rescue tubes to help distressed swimmers back to shore.

The Rotary Club doesn’t have a way to track rescues involving the tubes; they mostly hear about them through word of mouth or news reports.

And while flags have gone missing and some poles have been pushed over at other beaches, the only place they’ve really been removed is at Keawakapu. The tubes cost about $175 each, so the loss of all six has proved costly.

Bagshaw said the club plans to reinstall four tubes at Keawakapu later this month. To prevent people from removing them because they’re blocking views of the beach, members will place them in areas that are visible from the sand but tucked away from the views of homeowners or tourists in vacation rentals.

The Rotary Club also is going to start filing police reports for damaged or stolen tubes. Bagshaw said even if police can’t do anything after the fact, he wants them to have it on record in case they run across anyone with stolen tubes. They also plan to put up signs telling people what to do and who to call if they witness any acts of vandalism — either toll free at (855) 600-2345 or the police nonemergency number at 244-6400.

Rotary Clubs in West Maui, meanwhile, are facing the same problem. Of the 33 tubes that club members installed between February and April, nine have had to be replaced due to vandalism, said Mariko Higashi, who is the past president of the Rotary Club of Lahaina Sunset and has been leading efforts to install the tubes on the west side. Most incidents have occurred at Puamana, Ukumehame and Papalaua beaches.

However, Higashi said things have been improving — out of the nine vandalism incidents, eight occurred between March and July. In August and September, club members only had to replace one.

“I think as many people got to know about it, and a lot of news coverage about the benefits of the rescue tubes, I think people started to realize, ‘Oh, this is really a very important thing,’ ” Higashi said, adding that Rotarians have tried to get informational brochures out to hotels and condos.

She added that regular beachgoers have started to become mindful of the tubes. A Rotarian who went out to replace a tube with a broken strap about two weeks ago was stopped by a local guy who thought she was stealing the tube. The Rotarian assured him that she was just there to replace it, and when she returned the next morning, “he was very happy to see it,” Higashi said.

“There’s some positive stories and some sad stories,” Higashi said.

Just last week, Rotarians discovered two broken poles at D.T. Fleming Beach that they quickly replaced.

Higashi said she’s not sure why people vandalize the rescue tubes, but she’s heard many stories from the Rescue Tube Foundation on Kauai — homeless people using them as pillows, kids using them as flotation devices, residents putting them in their homes as decoration and some even using the tubes for knife practice.

“So public awareness is so important,” she said. “Please don’t do these silly things. Because these do save lives.”

* Colleen Uechi can be reached at cuechi@mauinews.com.


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