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No Ka Oi Health

You’ve heard about it, seen it or been there yourself: monster wave sets, strong currents or fierce wind chop that disorients or exhausts you. If you’re lucky, you’re at a lifeguarded beach where Maui County’s highly trained lifeguard professionals spring into action and make the rescue.

According to Maui Fire Department Ocean Safety Operations Manager Cary Kayama, Hawaii’s ocean lifeguards, called Ocean Safety Officers, or OSOs, make over 800 rescues each year across the county. The work is hazardous: helping snorkeling tourists at Pu’u Keka’a (Black Rock), local surfers at Ho’okipa, people getting pounded in the shore break at Oneloa (Big Beach). In addition to preventing and responding to drownings, spinal cord injuries and other water-related traumas, OSOs respond to sea creature emergencies and issues (wana, box jelly, shark, etc.), trips and falls in the parking lot and heart attacks or seizures on land across the street.

OSOs are stationed at a small percentage of the over 200 miles of coastline in the Maui County. Over 70 ocean professionals staff a total of 12 lifeguard towers at nine beaches between 8 a.m. and 4:45 p.m. The county recently approved more staff, 10-hour days and an additional tower at Pu’u Keka’a (where the most drownings per capita in the state occur) by next summer.

If you are not at a guarded beach when you or someone needs help, you may be able to still get or give assistance without risking your own safety. Over the last seven years, the Rotary Club of Kihei-Wailea, West Side Rotary Clubs, the Kaanapali Operators Association and others purchased, deployed and maintain over 175 public rescue tubes throughout Maui County.

Hawaii rescue tubes are yellow elongated flotation tubes made to support three adults while waiting for the OSO rescue response. According to retired MFD Ocean Safety Chief Colin Yamamoto, there have been 25 documented rescues using the tubes in Maui, and he estimates many more undocumented rescues.

The safest way to use the rescue tubes is to toss the tube so the person in distress can grab it and stay afloat. Even bystanders who are strong swimmers are discouraged from entering the water to help someone. If they decide to enter, they should do so with the aid of a flotation device such as the rescue tube. The bystander rescuer can wrap the 10-foot rescue tube strap across their torso while they swim out to the victim. The rescuer should toss or hand the tube to the victim, keeping the tube between themselves and the victim so that the victim is not tempted to grab onto the rescuer. Rescue tubes are not a substitute for professional OSOs but can offer help at unguarded beaches and during unguarded hours.

We are fortunate to also have over 30 lifeguards watching over the public at eight Maui County swimming pools. Our keiki are especially vulnerable to drowning during the summer when swimming pools get crowded, or parties are held at condominiums and home pools. Distracted adults may not notice when a struggling child silently slips under the water. Drowning children and adults won’t always wave their arms for help, instead using energy to push water down toward their feet in an effort to get their mouth above water. Younger children may not have the strength to move or yell because they are trying to breathe in and yelling involves breathing out.

Drowning is the third-leading cause of child mortality and is completely avoidable. Constant and close supervision of younger children is key, and four-sided fencing, pool covers and alarm systems are useful to prevent unsupervised access to swimming pools, reservoirs, spas and other locations which can attract curious toddlers as well as adventurous teens.

Swim lessons and water competency training are an important layer of protection. Call County Aquatics at (808) 270-6137 for information.

Next month we celebrate Hawaii Lifeguard Appreciation Week. The men and women who vigilantly watch out for us at our beaches, swimming pools, water parks, resorts and fitness centers are an asset to our community. They are invaluable at responding and preventing drowning and other traumas. We honor our lifeguards by supervising our keiki, educating our visitors and knowing our limits. For more information visit hioceansafety.com/.

* Bridget Kaumeheiwa Velasco is a planner with the Office of Public Health Preparedness at the Maui District Health Office. She can be reached at (808) 357-7239. She is this month’s guest columnist for No Ka Oi Health, which is published on the fourth Thursday of every month.

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